Actions

Work Header

Whose Poems Sewed You Shut

Work Text:

In the end, despite being bombastically traditional, the apocalypse doesn’t stick this time either. The glassy, fist-sized, shining black rosettes that were once flaming hail are being rapidly collected from their indiscriminate little scorchmark craters by SHIELD operatives and enterprising private collectors alike, and coordinated aid is finally mopping up wherever the local earthquake codes were insufficient or outdated. Fortunately, most of the city is modern construction thanks to previous disasters, so that’s limited. All the networks are back up, replaying shaky footage of Captain America fending off the Pale Horseman on foot with the grail spear, Matt’s ears are mostly recovered from the angelic trumpets, and It’s Patsy has somehow become keeper of the still-unbroken sixth seal. Also, seven hundred and seventy-seven risen martyrs are being processed in a makeshift refugee camp in the middle of Central Park.

About average for a New York Event these days, basically.

They’re both limping afterward, leaning on each other like playing cards at the base of some precarious construction. Matt’s gloves reek of soot and sulfur; Frank smells like saltwater and brass and something caustic and iron-rich Matt suspects is dragon blood. His apartment building is still standing, so once he verifies that Foggy and Karen are alright, they stagger up all the stairs to collapse in a heap together without even taking their armor off.

***

They sleep until mid-afternoon the next day. Late afternoon, if Matt’s being completely honest. Waking up is a lurching, groaning, piecemeal affair, tugging off bits of each other’s costumes as their exhaustion eases enough to let the uncomfortable jabs make themselves known, and then dozing again with the offending gear removed. By the time Matt startles into full consciousness with the small, close clatter of his jock dropped over the side of the bed, he’s only got one boot left, and Frank’s mismatched hands (smooth tactical glove, warm calloused skin) are pinning his hips.

“Really?” Matt asks, not objecting, just kind of boggled. He might not move for another week. He doesn’t know where Frank gets the energy. The fact that he sleeps instead of having a civilian day job helps, maybe. Going into crises with less of a deficit.

“We’re alive,” Frank rumbles, gruff and understated and warm, nips high up on Matt’s thigh with a sort of contemplative precision. Matt makes a noise, which is not a squeak, because he is a tough and dignified superhero, and arches into it a little despite how sore he is. Frank has a thing for victory sex. Matt has a thing for Frank’s thing, and not just in the snickering middle school way, because it’s the closest he comes to - not peace, and not really letting his guard down, either, but - being actually in the moment, being with Matt. These moments are the least his focus is ever divided, in between stretches of his self-imposed mission.

Matt slides a hand into Frank’s hair, which feels stiff with sweat, soft and gritty by turns with different types of ash. God, they’re both still filthy. Frank must be looking up at the face Matt is making, because he makes the short huff that means he’s chuckling on the inside, breath hot against Matt’s bare skin, and Matt groans. Possibly, maybe, whimpers a little.

The sheets, Matt figures, are already done for, and he lets his legs fall apart a little wider.

Frank - covers him, crawls over him, explores Matt’s languid body like it’s the first time. It’s a persistent, voracious kind of mood that always puts Matt in mind of wildfires, or tidal waves. Matt isn’t the first person to describe him as a force of nature, but Matt likes to think he knows what it means better than anyone still alive.

Frank’s nails trace the edge of a burn on Matt’s arm, only first degree thanks to the suit, but stinging miserably nonetheless, and Matt whines high in his throat, writhes a little, tries to get Frank to scratch across the ragged inflamed spot and change the tenor of pain, but Frank growls and pins his shoulder. Frank won’t hurt him anywhere that he already hurts from being Daredevil - wrong incentive, he says - hence the need for an exhaustive, constantly updated physical catalogue.

Which certainly has its appeal, but -

“Frank, please, please please please -” Not his best, and half-mumbled besides, but Matt hasn’t even had coffee yet. Frank kisses him on the mouth - ew, morning breath - as if to drink the words down, does his huff of a not-laugh again when Matt whines and screws up his face. Frank rubs two days of stubble against Matt’s cheek, because he’s an asshole, he knows it’s the worst kind of burn, prickly and itchy. Frank does this, too: just messes with him, teases him, pushes him until Matt finally uses his words. Because this is a work in progress, Matt knees him in the stomach, not enough to knock the breath out of him, but less than gently, and gets flipped over for his trouble, finally. Frank traverses his back with sharp teeth and short nails, stinging and scraping like a crosshatch cartographer around the islands of Matt’s bruises. Matt groans and wriggles and presses up into it until Frank finally gets to his ass, spanks him open-palmed but relentless until Matt can feel his own heartbeat throb more strongly in his flushed, abused skin than in his chest, until he’s nothing but raw sensation, crying and clutching and jerking against the sheets.

Frank hauls him out of bed and into the shower, pins Matt up against the cool tile, fucks him there while Matt can barely stand. Matt loves it like this, still floating in his own afterglow, weak-kneed and dazed and easy, all the desperation wrung out of him, just letting himself be swallowed up in the gentle patter of the water over his tormented skin and the warm slide of being taken. Frank keeps them there for a little while after he finishes, still holding most of Matt’s weight, draped over his back, face tucked into Matt’s neck, arms slung low around Matt’s abdomen, just breathing, just lingering as close as he can get. Frank is as bad at using his words outside of sex as Matt is during it, but if this is all the declaration Matt ever gets - it’s enough. He knows.

Matt reaches behind him, curls a hand around the back of Frank’s neck, an anchor, an answer. I got you too. “Ready for breakfast?” Matt asks, and Frank grunts something mm-heavy and vaguely affirmative, because he has a pathological dislike of answering straight questions with the actual word yes. Matt knew he was doomed when he realized he’d started to find that cute.

***

They dry off and tend their injuries properly while the coffee brews, mostly minor things, thank god. They know how to move around each other by now, frying bacon and chopping mushrooms into scrambled eggs. Breakfast for dinner, but it’s easy. The little eight-inch TV Matt got on craigslist for their otherwise-unacknowledged six-month anniversary plays local news, because Frank relies on those stations almost as much as Matt does on his hearing, and - it made sense, if Frank was going to spend time in Matt’s place regularly, if Matt wanted that time he otherwise would have been skulking in dingy sports bars.

This evening channel seven is doing a ‘spotlight on the martyrs’ piece, which would be puff if they weren’t all legitimately amazing, apparently. There’s a drag queen from the twenties already using her interview to try to launch a new socialist movement, who ends up getting stolen from the camera crew by a teary-voiced Captain America in a rush of do you remembers. There’s a woman who was an operator on the underground railroad, and a boy who fought in the revolutionary war who can’t possibly be over sixteen, the timber of his awed answers still slightly wavering with puberty.

And then -

“Maria Elizabeth Castle, née Bosco, wife of the infamous vigilante known as the Punisher, was murdered in a gang related shootout only a few acres from here, beginning a spree of vengeance that has remained unabated for over half a decade.”

Frank has gone deathly still, barely breathing, heart pounding like a train piston. Matt imagines he can smell the eggs burning, but that’s nonsense, it’s couldn’t happen that quickly. It’s fine. The eggs are fine. He’s.

The journalists are mobbing her, questions coming in a barrage.

“Mrs. Castle, do you believe your husband had PTSD from his time overseas while you were married?”

“Mrs. Castle was the punisher ever violent with you or your children?”

“Mrs. Castle are you worried about reprisals from the Punisher’s enemies?”

“Mrs. Castle -”

“Mrs. Castle!”

They go silent, as suddenly as they started. Matt wishes he could see what she was doing to shut them up, what gesture, what look. Frank actually stops breathing. Matt bites his lip so he doesn’t laugh, something bitter and hysterical blooming inside him in the suspended moment, because Frank had no one but Matt, Frank the blood-soaked pariah, Frank who let no one in without months, years of knocking, the one person on the planet whose ragged self-induced isolation was worse than Matt’s, and now his wife is alive. It’s so. Out of the blue.

And he has to hope - he has to, if he has any real care for Frank in him at all, has to hope she’ll take him back. Matt wants to throw something at the television before they can find out, wants to flip the frying pan and burn them both with grease, anything, anything but this.

She must point. Only one of the vultures speaks.

“Mrs. Castle, how did you feel when you first found out that in the wake of your death, your husband became a relentless mass murderer with a death toll currently estimated at over three thousand people?”

Silence, again, for two heartbeats, four, six. Matt wishes he could see her face. He wonders what Frank sees in it. He’s still not breathing.

“Unsurprised,” she answers, dry and regal, like nothing in the world could ever fluster her, like it’s amusing anyone could imagine that it might, but she is dignified and magnanimous enough to refrain from open contempt at whoever bothered to ask the question.

“Mrs. Castle -” the swarm starts up again, “Mrs. Castle - Mrs. Castle -”

“If you gentlemen will excuse me,” she murmurs, in that same gracious, steely alto, not even slightly a request, “As one of the most contemporary resurrected, I’m assisting with the relief effort.”

There’s pap, after that, there you have it folks, and then it cuts to commercial. Frank is breathing again, fast and shallow now, his hands clenched so hard on the counter that Matt can hear all the old healed hairline fractures along his knuckles creaking.

“Frank,” Matt says, swallows, and at least his voice doesn’t crack. Frank is panicking and maybe Matt is also panicking but Frank is the one who just got the love of his life back so Frank has to go first. “Frank, say something.”

Just rip the bandaid off, Matt thinks, we both know this isn’t a hard choice, just do it. There’s no dodging this hit, but Matt can take it. Murdocks always get up.

“My kids. Were there,” Frank rasps, and for a second Matt doesn’t even understand the words, and then he does, and everything hurts worse and better at once, a full-body ache, but it’s not so mangled, a clean feeling, a shearing away. His whole family, his real family. He doesn’t even have to say it; forget an easy choice, there’s no choice at all.

Frank is still talking. “They said that in front of my kids.”

He sounds cracked open, lost and scrabbling, like he has to catch each word before it escapes him. It’s shock, Matt reminds himself, it’s a lot to adjust to and a lot to own up to, of course he’s confused and scared. Hope is for the possible; Frank never let himself imagine this. But he’ll get there. He’ll be happy, with the life he always should have had.

“It’ll be okay,” Matt chokes, because it’s true. Because Frank always believes the worst of himself, believes he’s too far gone for any acceptance, and it’s stupid. If it were his dad - he wouldn’t care. Not about all the reporters or all the crooks in the world.

“I need,” Frank tries, like he needs Matt’s permission. “I need to go.”

Matt reaches out - just one touch, just Matt’s hand on his hand, instead of saying goodbye. Frank is shaking. Frank does sniper work, his hands never shake, but now they are.

“Yeah,” Matt says, and then one more time, “It’s okay.” It’s not. But Frank should be happy. He’s grieved enough.

Frank slips his jacket on, shoves his hands into the pockets as Matt’s door clicks shut behind him. Matt realizes the eggs are burning after all.

***

It takes about five minutes for Matt to decide to follow him. Matt knows he’s bad at boundaries, but - Frank’s hands were shaking. He’s a mess. Matt isn’t going to - try anything. No last minute romantic gestures, no pleading. He just wants to make sure Frank is okay, that he gets where he’s going without walking dazedly into traffic. If he wants to follow that heartbeat a little longer, if he has a habit of rubbing salt in his own wounds - he’s a grown man. He’s allowed. He’s allowed to be less than healthy about this.

Frank is usually good at catching Matt following him, knows how to use mirrors that Matt can’t see, but Frank is distracted and Matt isn’t in red, and he keeps his distance, most of a block, while Frank circles the park and dodges police and paparazzi and clean-up crews. Matt’s cane taps against a chunk of fallen masonry and he keeps his distance. Good practice, he thinks. He feels like the taps are echoing inside him, in the places where he’s gone hollow.

It takes hours, before the hive of activity centered around the park quiets for the night enough for Frank to slip in unnoticed. There’s a cool breeze ruffling the rows of tent canvas, and no roofs to climb. Matt knows before Frank does that he’s found the right one from the cadence of his children’s sleeping breath. There aren’t many kids here. They sound different.

Maria is awake, drinking cheap instant coffee out of a styrofoam cup. She smells like smoke, a little bit like church incense and a little like an autumn bonfire, and dogwood blossoms, a sweet-spicy orange flicker against the bitterness of wreckage and the persistent green sap and soil smell of the park.

“You’ve been standing there for awhile,” she says, stepping outside the tent, voice gentler than she was with the reporters, still stately and low.

“I don’t,” Frank starts. “I didn’t know -” Matt can hear the tiny scrape of his nails against his palms, hands clenched. “I’m - you didn’t ask for -” the words keep dying in his throat. He doesn’t know how to start. Matt wouldn’t know either. It’s been six years, for him, and about thirty-six hours for her. Unless she remembers heaven. Hard to measure up to that.

“Oh, angel,” she interrupts him, the pet name as thoughtless as it is implausible, as if she’s said it a hundred times, “What happened to you?”

Don’t,” he says, like the sound of it burns him. “Please, just, there was -” He chokes again. And then she touches him, just fingertips at first, sliding across his cheek until her palm is cupping his jaw. He still hasn’t shaved, when would he have, and the touch rasps against the same stubble he tormented Matt with just hours ago.

“Tell me.” It’s compassionate without being anything like gentle, steady and sturdy. Matt thinks of old-fashioned wood furniture, heavy and solid and worn smooth.

“A woman,” Frank says, “Scarred. Pretending to be you, just like - back from - she knew. Somehow. She called me that.” And Matt remembers her, Lady Gorgon, one more sloppy plot to kill him, except that Frank had been ripped open afterward.

It’s a kick in the teeth, because that was the first time Frank kissed him, when giving up even the poisoned lethal facade of his wife left him too raw and lonely to go on without a scrap of connection, touch from another human being. It was six months before either of them admitted it was anything but sex, but that’s when it started, the first chink in the armor, and he could never push Matt away quite as completely after that.

But it was her he wanted. Her he really needed, all along. Of course it was. He breathes, carefully, slowly, because the mind controls the body, and almost misses Maria suggesting, with deliberately light inquiry, a substitute endearment.

“Oh captain, my captain?”

It eases the tension, and Frank does his huffed-breath not-quite-laugh, but it still comes out of him too fast, too harsh. Matt can taste salt on the air, hear him blinking too fast.

“Say my name,” Frank begs, low, almost a whisper, like he doesn’t dare ask louder, like he’s afraid of waking himself up. “Please just say my name.”

“Frank.”

He crumples, sways into her. She wraps her arms around his shoulders, kisses his temple, her mouth so close to his ear. Murmurs, even softer, “Francis.

Frank makes a noise Matt hasn’t heard since Daredevil stopped kicking him in the stomach in earnest, low and breathless and wounded, clutches her tight.

Matt swallows and creeps away; even he can’t deal with listening to something so private anymore.

***

When Matt wakes up the next day, it takes him a minute to remember why he really shouldn’t be hearing Frank’s heartbeat on the couch. Matt shoves his face under his pillow, but it doesn’t block out the sound.

I walked away, he thinks, hot and prickly with resentment. He knows he was a creep but he left eventually, that’s what he was supposed to do. If you love something, let it go. What trash. Matt doesn’t understand why he’s back, and he doesn’t have the energy to figure it out. He’s not sure he even wants to get out of bed. He seethes under his sheets for most of an hour, until he smells and hears Frank start to make coffee, and that is the last straw. It’s so domestic, so - completely ordinary, like yesterday never happened, like a track skipped and he’s doing some kind of groundhog day bullshit, and Matt can’t stand it. He rifles through his drawers for pants and a t-shirt before padding into the kitchen with his quietest ninja steps, because Frank hates that.

“What are you doing?” He tries to keep the anger out of it, just leave the bewilderment. He’s petty enough to feel it but not enough to show it. He knows it’s petty. Knows he should be happy for him. It’ll get easier, Matt tells himself, with time. And distance, which Frank is flagrantly not providing him.

“SHIELD put a marshal on Maria this morning,” Frank says, gruffly, and he has the decency to sound slightly sheepish. “And I can’t. Be seen with them, Matt. You know -”

They’re already celebrities, already targets. As long as they’re surrounded by avengers and law enforcement during the clean-up they’re probably fine, but eventually - he can't protect them if he's buried somewhere in supermax, and it’s years too late to keep the secret.

“Okay, yes, but why are you here?” It’s not like he doesn’t still have other boltholes. Matt won’t keep his armory for him.

Frank hands him a cup of coffee and Matt lets himself take it. Their fingertips don’t touch.

“I’m sorry,” Frank says, swallows, the shape of him turning partly away, and Matt hates it. Frank’s never sorry about anything, the stubborn bastard. “I know it’s not fair. I know. I just.”

“Use your words,” Matt says, a little meanly, but turnabout is fair play. More than fair. Frank’s heartbeat skips up a few notches, because yeah, those sure were some memories, Frank training him to ask for things he wanted. It soothes the worst edges of Matt’s envy a little, that he can still make Frank’s pulse do that, with so oblique a reference. Even if Frank was never really his, Matt’s marked him, had an impact. It was real, while it lasted.

“I don’t want to be alone right now,” Frank says, very softly, but every word deliberate and clear, and then Matt feels like the asshole, because of course Frank still doesn’t know how to back down from a challenge, even when the challenge is feelings. Matt sighs, long and slow, lets all the bitchy selfishness drain out of him, at least for a little while.

“Yeah,” Matt says, and “Okay,” and “Whatever you need.”

So then they’re in limbo.

***

Frank slips in and out like a cat, like he always has. Matt doesn’t know what he does while Matt’s at work, if he’s still hunting, and he doesn’t ask. Frank sleeps in his apartment every night for a week (rare) but always on the couch (unprecedented). They orbit like captured moons: unstable, elliptical, drawing close and then rushing away, always without colliding.

Because Matt is bad at not poking his wounds, he asks “Did you tell her about me?” Because Matt is getting better at planning ahead, he asks this while suiting up, and can jump out the window without replying after Frank says “Yes,” all gravelly. Grave. Says the actual word yes, which means it matters enough that Frank won’t let himself shelter in grudging ambiguity. Matt can just imagine it: Frank hunched over, giving confession, his wife elegant and a little hurt, still listening.

Matt’s never been a thing someone was ashamed of, before.

Kicking muggers in the face helps, a little. Score one for planning.

***

Two days after that, Matt comes home one night to find Frank pacing in front of the billboard. Which is - worrying. Frank’s no ninja, but there’s a directness to him, a severe economy to the way he uses his body, a deep-seated refusal to waste motion. He doesn’t fidget, like Matt does, doesn’t linger unless it’s deliberate, and certainly doesn’t pace.

Whatever, Matt thinks. Whatever. He’s not Matt’s lover anymore, weird swansong cohabitation notwithstanding, so it’s not up to Matt to hold his hand through whatever weird breakdown this is. It’s not. It’s not fair, Matt is supposed to be trying to get over him.

But it’s still happening in his living room. And it’s not like Matt didn’t care about this shambling locked-down wreck of a person before they got together. Matt rubs a hand over his face, mutters “Uhg,” under his breath, and then throws his keys at Frank’s head.

Frank ducks - dives, actually, with thoroughly honed reflexes - and is probably glaring at Matt from behind the coffee table as the keys clatter against the window, but it does snap him out of it, so Matt’s calling it a win.

What,” Frank growls, and Matt says, “No, you what,” because he is an eloquent legal scholar.

“Seriously, I can tell when you’re freaking out.” Not that it ever stopped Frank being stoic before, but. Strange new worlds, and all that. “Spit it out. Unless you were getting somewhere walking in circles?”

“I’m taking these hostage,” Frank deflects, badly, scooping up Matt’s keys and then seeming to get stuck in place a step from the couch, too tense to sit down, too self-conscious to start pacing again. Matt bites his tongue on I’ll wrestle you for them. That’s no longer an appropriate retort. Instead he just stays silent, lets whatever Frank’s dealing with seethe and bubble to the surface. He used to be the champion of locking things down, which crown Matt very reluctantly conceded, but it’s clearly not working for him any more.

Frank cracks in a sudden rush, dropping Matt’s keys on the table as he collapses onto the couch, elbows on his knees, face in his hands, one hunched defensive coil. “Maria says she can distract the marshal for an hour,” he mumbles into his hands.

“...and that’s...terrible?” Matt goads. There’s a taut lull that means Frank is probably scowling at him, but it’s not like Matt can see it, so he ignores it and goes to hang up his jacket.

Frank’s quiet, but his heart is loud and quick. He smells like fear, and it takes Matt a second to place the bitterness, because it suits him so badly, because it’s never happened before.

“You’re afraid,” he says, dumbly, and it’s probably not the best course but he’s too boggled to be polite about it, even if he should have guessed. “Didn’t you parachute out of a nuke once?”

“That’s classified,” he mutters in a flat deadpan, and Matt folds his arms and waits. “I can’t….Matt, how can I - you know what I am,” Frank growls, like that’s a response that makes any sense.

“I’m not sure I do.”

“I’m death. That’s all I do. I can’t.” He makes a low, frustrated, yearning noise. “They have a second chance. How can I bring that back into their lives?”

“Didn’t you make contact already? And the world didn’t fall apart?”

“Not the kids,” Frank says, and he sounds - shattered and reverent at once. “They were sleeping. I just - looked.” He goes all soft on the last word, unbearably tender, like that one glimpse put his heart back in his chest, warm and spinning. Matt’s own heart does a little flip, and he wants to hold Frank so badly, but at least he gets it now.

“You idiot,” he says gently, and lets himself sit next to Frank on the couch. “Frank...you’re their dad. Their soldier dad who shoots the kind of bad guys who attacked them. No matter what you think of yourself, no matter what anyone else thinks or tried to tell them about you, I promise, they want to see you. You’re their hero. Go.”

***

Somehow, because he is a chump, Matt ends up tagging along. He doesn’t actually have to drag Frank out the door when the arranged time comes, but there are a few moments he’s worried it might come to that. It’s a little heartbreaking to listen to, how terrified Frank is of the thing he wants more than anything in the world, and Matt figures it’s his duty to make sure Frank doesn’t chicken out en route. Someone has to do it. And isn’t stepping up in the face of all sense how everyone in the vigilante crowd ended up where they are?

Frank seems to appreciate it, anyway, muttering a gruff “Thanks,” in the elevator of the cramped-but-clean midtown apartment block his family has been temporarily moved into. Matt tightens his grip on his cane when he can suddenly pick out their voices down the hall, even though he’s never heard them speak before, it has to be them.

“But what if he doesn’t -”

Shut up,” hisses a little girl’s voice. Lisa. That’s Lisa. “He’s cool, okay? This isn’t like the war. He’s gonna come.”

The war. Matt never thought - he wonders how much Frank Junior has seen his father, ever. And it feels so wrong, for him to hear this when Frank can’t, another forty feet to the right door. Matt balks, jerks his head back to the elevator.

“Well, you made it, I’ll just -”

“Please,” Frank says, low, the exact same way he’d said I don’t want to be alone right now.

Matt wavers, concedes, and whacks Frank’s calves lightly with his cane.

“Just keep going.”

Frank gulps down a breath and knocks. Inside, Lisa hollers, “What’s the magic password?” with an inimitable childhood gusto.

Frank sucks in a breath, heart pounding, voice a little raspy when he answers “Tiger, tiger,” and then the door is getting yanked open, Lisa staring at them, her little brother peering out from just behind her, all of them momentarily frozen with the weight of the meeting.

“...oh my god, Dad,” Lisa says, breaking the stunned silence with her own tactless preteen shock, “You are so old now.”

There’s another hanging moment, everyone’s heartbeats a little bit deafening, before Frank starts to laugh. Not his usual unvoiced half-breath of amusement, but huge, helpless, gasping peals of laughter, like nothing Matt’s ever heard before. A step inside the threshold and he falls to his knees, pulls both of them into his arms, into a crushing hug. Matt can smell tears, but can’t tell how much of it is from mirth, tiny sobs hitching their way in between the gusts of still-uncontrollable laughter.

“Well, you don’t have to cry about it,” Lisa mutters, awkwardly, patting his back, but she hugs him back just as tight.

“I don’t think you’re old,” Frank Junior pipes up, and Lisa scuffles slightly, manages to elbow him inside Frank’s unrelenting embrace. “Kiss-ass,” she accuses under her breath, which just makes Frank laugh even harder.

“I love you,” he chokes, kisses their hair, their foreheads, their little noses. “I love you. I love you. I love you.”

Eventually they pull him inside, each seemingly with a million things to tell him about their week of fame and adventure since the notpocalypse. Lisa got Captain America to sign her hat, and Frank Junior found a blue jay feather, and mom wouldn’t let them ride on the helicarrier even though it was so cool. Frank lets them tow him along, basks in the bright darting excited presence of them.

Matt tells him by hand signal that he’ll guard the door, although he has no idea if Frank is paying enough attention to catch it. It makes Matt feel like he’s doing something useful, anyway, and the kids seem perfectly content to ignore him in favor of their dad’s attention. It’s pretty cute - okay, it’s stupidly cute, Matt’s heart has grown three sizes like the grinch just from listening, or something. By about fifteen minutes in, Matt’s pretty sure he’d kill a lot of people too, if they ever got hurt again.

It’s an hour but it feels like no time at all when Frank’s phone beeps a warning, and Frank crouches down to hug them both tight again. “Your mom and Marshal Bridge are going to be back soon, so I have to go, okay?”

“But why do you have to-” It’s Frank Junior who asks, and Lisa shushes him, suddenly straight-backed and swallowing down any of her own appeals. She must be used to it, Matt realizes with a pang, a military brat long since inured to a series of necessary goodbyes. Frank makes both of them memorize his phone number, and promise not to tell it to anyone or use it from any of the places the Marshal Service puts them up. And then he points to Matt.

“He’s - my friend,” he says, and manages to sound hoarsely heartfelt rather than insanely awkward. “If you’re ever in trouble, if you can’t get ahold of me or Bridge, if you need someplace to go -”

And Matt says “Yeah, of course,” when Frank falters, so then they’re memorizing his address, too. Lisa’s quiet for the first time, surveying him, maybe, and Frank says softly, “I trust him.”

It’s not a lie. And that’s - precious. Even if that’s all it is now, all it can be, allies. Lisa nods, then darts forward to hug Matt, too.

“You’ve got his back out there, right?” she whispers into Matt’s ear, and he says “Yeah,” throat a little dry. “Thanks,” she says; worrying about him is another thing she’s used to. Then she puts her brave face back on, locks the bolt behind them as Frank and Matt hurry away.

***

“I told you so,” Matt says later, verbatim. There are some temptations mortal man was not meant to withstand.

“Mmhm,” Frank concedes, terse as ever, but it sounds like he’s trying not to smile.

***

The thing is, it would be a lot easier to repress his feelings with punching if Matt knew what the hell he felt anymore. Frank has started buying Matt’s groceries, like some kind of weird dry run or pressure valve for his reawakened nurturing side. He finally installs heavy curtains in Matt’s living room and, unprompted, cleans all the cupboards. He’s nesting, Matt’s not an idiot, and frustrated by the totally legitimate attempts of the United States government to use his family to put him away for about a bajillion counts of premeditated murder. Matt would go crazy too, probably, so close but so far, but that doesn’t make it less - less difficult, being the second-hard recipient of all this caretaking that isn’t really for him. It’s insulting and - cruel, honestly, Frank is using him just because he’s there, but Matt doesn’t know how to hold it against him any more.

Because he’d thought Frank was happy, before. That’s the thought that makes his stomach flip over faster and sink farther than jumping off buildings ever did. Matt knew he wasn’t ecstatic or anything, he wasn’t crazy, but he thought Frank had...eased a little, opened up a little, found ways to be content with him. And now -

Matt wasn’t in the right part of the battle to hear any of the martyrs come back to life, but he can’t imagine it was much different than this. Frank hums softly while he works now, sings sometimes in broken Italian, makes dry incisive jokes about problem clients when Matt complains about the office, when before it would have been mostly sympathetic grunts. He’s still quiet, still focused, still stubborn and reserved, but all the harrowed edges Matt thought were just part of him are seeping away like blood down the drain.

His hands start smelling like soil and basil and lemongrass more than metal and gunpowder. There’s a little community garden across the street from the kids’ school, he explains when Matt finally asks. If he works for a day, he can watch them at recess, twenty minutes each. Frank talks like it’s purely tactical, purely transactional, but he breathes easier and walks lighter and brings back homemade pesto that smells so delicious Matt can’t turn it down.

It’s fucking gorgeous, is the thing, unfairly and unspeakably lovely, the process of Frank turning back into a human being, even as he turns up in Matt’s apartment less and less. Matt doesn’t know how to be happy for him, and miss him, and deal with the fact that Matt never really knew him at all, all at once. There’s this whole other person Matt never guessed could exist. It makes Matt feel so stupid, because of course he was different, before, but - he owes Foggy another apology, he thinks, years after the fact. He never really understood how much it hurt, finding out too late that the person you thought you loved was just was a piece of the whole, was just armor against the world, was never really there at all.

He punches his way through a ring of jewelry thieves, even though they’re technically based too far uptown to fall in his territory. But Hell’s Kitchen is being perversely quiet, and he really prefers punching to moping, and also they’ve helped fence a couple of engagement rings originally mugged off Kitchen girls, so, it counts. He grits his teeth against the crunch of glass under his boots and identifies the cuts of the gems by touch so he can return them properly.

He should have known, anyway. He should have known he was a tepid stopover in the landscape of Frank’s grief, and it’s a country he doesn’t need to return to anymore.

***

Once, Frank crashes into his bedroom a little before sunrise, about an hour after Matt took off the suit, heart racing, gasping unevenly for air. He reeks of bitter fear-sweat and blood where he’d bitten his lip, reflexively refusing, even in sleep, to scream. “Is it real,” he demands, wild, desperate, not quite coherent, still hazy with the unreality of the moments right after sleep. “Is it real?” The words are repeated and driven forward like pylons hammered into a cliff face, like his whole weight is suspended on them, like he has no others. Matt has no clue whether it was a good dream or a bad one; all things considered, waking from either would probably be equally terrifying.

“They’re alive,” Matt says, firmly and matter-of-factly as he can, listens to Frank slump onto his floorboards and lean against the bedpost, still struggling for air. “Oh god,” he whispers, a new litany. “Oh god.” The most he can manage of prayer.

They’ve weathered nightmares together before, but never like this. It’s all words and no skin, Matt saying “They’re alive, it’s real, I swear it’s real,” and keeping his breathing slow until Frank can finally match him. Matt wants to hold him, but doesn’t. Frank doesn’t climb into bed with him, doesn’t reach for him. He shoves himself to his feet when he can finally breathe, says “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” like he needed one last mantra, and it makes something in Matt’s rib cage go sharp and cold.

Matt hears him wash his face in the sink, and then he leaves Matt’s apartment, tread brisk and heavy. He never takes his boots off at Matt’s place anymore.

***

Frank doesn’t come back for several days, after that. Which is probably good for him, honestly. He’s the other woman. He’s Frank’s adulterer, not his therapist, and they both need the space. He throws himself into cases during the day, and he keeps an ear out for Frank at night, because he did promise Lisa. But Matt doesn’t drop in when he catches the flicker of him, just listens long enough to know he’s not bleeding out or aimed at anything especially insane, then parkours the other way. Frank leaves him a message in a dropsite, once, smelling of leather and old-fashioned typewriter ink, letters punched heavily enough for an easy read: Wrapping up some loose ends. - F

But that’s it.

Matt concentrates so much on work that he doesn’t, metaphorically, see it coming at all, even though Maria makes an eleven o’clock appointment through Karen under the name Mary Rook, hiding in plain sight just like Frank does, and turns up five minutes early. Which is why Matt nearly stabs himself in the foot dropping a letter opener when he hears her voice, floating up from the ground floor.

The gloves she used for dealing with the reporters are off. She’s angry and refusing to hide it, and Matt quails in his chair, digs his fingers into the arms of it, and realizes he has nowhere to run.

“Was attorney/client privilege somehow repealed while I was dead, Marshal Bridge?” she demands, imperious and implacable and viciously pointed. “Have I been convicted of terrorism, or ruled a nonhuman being from an alternate plane? Because if you’d like to strip me of my rights as a human and a citizen we can have that fight. I’m sure my literal martyrdom won’t sway a jury - or the public - at all.”

“No one is trying to deny you confidentiality,” answers a ponderous, aggravated base. “I assume they have private rooms, but I must insist on following you to the office -”

“I am not your prisoner,” Maria tells him, bitterly cold. “There’s one staircase. Cover it. Unless you want your agency to have a full-on holy revolt on its hands, you will wait. Here. Are we clear?”

“...yes, Mrs. Castle,” he finally concedes, with something backhanded about the way he uses her married name that’s completely different from the tabloid journalists’ shallow fixation on it.

“Good man,” she retorts, smoothly contemptuous right back, and her heels start tapping on the stairs.

Matt buries his face in his hands. It’s not like he doesn’t deserve this, whatever she wants to do to him, whatever she’s going to say. He fucked her husband, and she has every right to hate him, to scream, to throw things. (Foggy's taste in cheesy romcoms assures him that angry women mostly throw things.) He breathes through his nose, while her heels go tap-tap-tap and her hair swishes as she rounds a sharp turn on the landing. In every sense, he has this coming.

“I have an appointment with Mr. Murdock,” she tells Karen when she reaches their floor, and all the fury he heard moments ago is hidden again under confident poise.

“Of course. Right this way -”

Matt sits up straight, tries to find an expression that’s decently professional without being a farcical smile.

“Please sit,” he says, and his voice stays steady. He doesn’t offer his hand to shake, doesn’t make her touch him or give her the chance to leave him twisting in the air, waiting for it.

Karen closes the door behind her.

Her heartbeat is a little elevated from climbing the stairs, but not racing. She’s running a couple of degrees hot but doesn’t smell ill - just smoke and dogwoods and coffee, the same as before. It’s not perfume, he doesn’t think, just her. The kids had it too, he realizes suddenly, focusing on minutiae as he waits for the blow.

“You already know who I really am, right?” She begins, mild but direct.

“Yes.” His voice is just a little bit dry. It’s fine. He’s fine.

“Good. A lot of our property was seized by the state a few weeks after Frank went went off the grid. The house is a terrifying unlivable delinquent shrine now, of course, but I want a settlement and everything they’ve got in storage. After that I need to set up legal new identities for me and the kids without actually going through Witness Protection because, one, anyone we could actually testify against is very dead, and two, those are very much the same people who want to use us to lock Frank in a very deep pit for the rest of his natural life.”

It doesn’t sound rehearsed, just crisp and practical, a person who knows what she needs.

“....I assume you would also prefer that not happen,” she adds, and it isn’t a question except that it is, a little. Matt isn’t always a good person but he isn’t terrible enough to pull some kind of possessive sabotage, if I can’t have him no one can. His imagination flashes on Frank in a cell, in the dark, grieving again, Lisa waiting and waiting and Frank Junior forgetting exactly what he looked like. Matt shudders.

“Yeah, I. Yes. We can do all of that, Nelson and Murdock has a lot of experience with - weird property allocation in the case of presumed or actual temporary deaths, and cover identities. That’s - yes. Of course.”

All of which is true. It’s been a weird couple of years, and reputations snowball, so anyone in their crowd who doesn’t trust Stark comes to them, and - they’ll even get a cut of the settlement, Foggy will be happy. He waits for her to say something else, tries to remember any of the similar cases they’ve done, any of relevant privacy laws, the kind of injunctions they’ll need to file to get rid of her Marshal tail for good, but he can’t remember any of it.

She keeps not saying it, she said Frank’s name but nothing about him, and the silence where she isn’t shouting feels like a weight pushing down on Matt’s shoulders, like an oncoming train, and suddenly Matt can’t the waiting anymore.

“I’m not going to. Do anything, to stand in your way,” Matt stumbles. There’s a useless, ancient instinct telling him to bend his head, to signal the surrender, but he doesn’t, tries to keep his face pointed approximately in her direction. “I know - you’re his wife, you’re his true love and we weren’t - serious, really, it’s been less than a year.” Matt’s heart twists and thumps and the worst part is, most of it isn’t a lie. It was serious for him, sure but - it takes two.

Well,” she says after a moment, seems - taken aback, maybe, words plucked between short surprised breaths. “Are we - alright, we’re talking about this.” Matt resists the urge to clench his hands. To brace. Here they go. She taps her nails progressively on the wood of the desk, says contemplatively, a little cooly,

He said it was serious. But I must say, it’s hard to imagine Frank falling for someone who surrenders so easily.”

Excuse you,” Matt chokes, because what he means is fuck you, because all the tangled knots of hurt and confusion that he’s been carrying around are suddenly strangling him, because he’s almost too mad to breathe. He is - he - “I am trying to do the right thing,” he hisses because he’ll be damned if he yells first. And maybe he’s not on their level, when it comes to sacrifice, maybe he has no right to any of what he’s giving up, but he would like a little fucking credit for trying to do it gracefully anyway.

“That simple,” she says, terse, dubious, heartbeat spiking. “What is this, kindergarten?” Her voice is sardonic, hard-edged and clear like cut-crystal, but there’s something glinting and fragile in it, in that sudden nervous rabbiting, that guts Matt’s anger as quickly as it was summoned. “I licked it first, so it belongs to me?”

Matt should - not think about that image, honestly. Either part of it. This conversation is excruciating enough. He forces himself to take a slow breath. He’d never imagined she could doubt her own claim, but she hasn’t seen him in weeks, for trying to protect him. Not since the first night, when she found out about Matt.

“He promised to be with you forever. And he meant it. That’s why,” Matt says. It aches well, like the truth should.

“I’m pretty sure that promise was till death do us part, actually,” Maria says, almost gently, quieter, sweet and sad. “Mr. Murdock - Matt - I’m still. Adjusting, and all the ways the world hasn’t changed just make it more jarring when I run into the ways it has. He’s this icon now and I don’t know -” She swallows whatever she meant to say. “He doesn’t owe me anything.”

Matt wonders if that sentence was going to be, I don’t know what he wants.

“Who’s giving up now?” he asks, tries to make it pointed but not cruel.

“I didn’t say that,” she returns, sharp but contained, defensive and trying not to be. Matt sighs, runs a hand through his hair.

“He’s different too. More than the world is, probably, he’s been hurting for a long time, and he’s done a lot of terrible things but he still loves you and those kids more than anything, okay? So if this oh death parted us technicality is your way of trying to get out of it, if you can’t deal with how much he’s changed, if you don’t want him, you need to say it straight out. But don't pretend it's for him.”

It hurts to level the accusation, hurts more to imagine it could be true - it would destroy Frank, like no enemy ever could. Matt can’t want that, no matter how much he’ll miss him if it isn’t true.

There’s a tiny scraping sound, Maria gritting her teeth.

“I don’t want out of anything. I want him to be happy,” she snaps, grinds out, not quite hiding how offended she wants to be. Matt - breathes. Okay. Okay.

“I want that too,” he tells her softly. His head is bowed now after all. He doesn’t know when that happened. ”And what he wants is you, you have to know that. He is - utterly, breathtakingly crazy about you, just the possibility of having you back is transforming him. That icon you don’t know, everything he’s been so obsessed with for the last six years goes back to losing you. He didn’t move on. I don’t think he’s even capable of it. He was only ever with me because he was lonely and I was there. That’s the truth.”

There’s a lull, then. Their hearts are almost in time - probably because he’s been so focused on her. He can hear her blinking, quickly, several times.

“You know,” she says slowly, gingerly, “I don’t think he is that different. It was true, when I said I wasn’t surprised. He’s always been - driven, intense. Willing to do anything he thought was necessary, and solitary about it. A real if you want something done right, do it yourself guy. He never relied on other people very much, and when he did it was serious, back-to-the-wall life-on-the-line band-of-brothers stuff. That’s not a. A punisher thing, or even a soldier thing. That’s who he is.

“He doesn’t let people in unless they’re already worth everything to him.”

Matt swallows, shakes his head, not objecting, exactly, just - trying to shake the pieces of it until they make sense, maybe, because they don’t, it’s not like that.

(I trust him.)

“He told me, that first night before I got my watchdog -” her voice wavers a little now, but doesn’t break. “He said. You made him not want to die, for the first time in years.”

Something’s roaring in Matt’s ears, but it’s not a crowd or a train or a car crash, and something is billowing hot and bright in his chest, like a hot air balloon filling up, straining against its tethers. He can’t - what -

“He didn’t have anything but grief and death until you. Until you gave him - kindness, and trust, and basic human understanding. Until you kept giving it to him, kept trying, didn’t let him push you away. And if that wasn’t serious for you, you can fuck right off, but - if you’re lying to me trying to be selfless like I think you are - if you love him back, I can’t.

“I can’t be the person to take that away from him, do you understand?” Her voice does crack, finally, when she gets to the end, and oh god, she’s crying, three fat salt tears splashing against the desktop before she sniffs and grabs a tissue and gulps down whatever else is stuck in her throat.

“No,” Matt says, because he can’t - because that can’t be right, she has it all backwards, somehow. “No, that’s not. He doesn’t need me for that anymore. He didn’t have anything but death and grief because you were gone. And. You’re back.”

“Oh, dear,” she murmurs, still a little watery. “It’s not that simple. Even if we manage to get around the government and the tabloids and all the aspiring apprentice murderers and build our life together again - that won’t erase the years in between. It won’t - the grief is always going to be carved into him.” A little breath, the slick sound of her wetter her lips, bracing for something - “And I don’t love him any less for that. But....Matthew. Being happy isn’t ever just about what we need.”

He doesn’t know what that means; he doesn’t know what to say. But she seems to be waiting on him, so.

“...I don’t know what that means.”

She’s quiet for a little longer. There’s a metal-on-skin sliding sound, and Matt realizes dimly that she’s wearing her ring, twisting it. Then, wistfully,

“I knew when I married Frank that I’d always have to share him.”

What,” Matt says, and “No, he wouldn’t, he’d never have cheated on you, not if he knew -”

And then he has to stop because she’s standing, leaning over the desk to press two fingertips against his mouth.

“Quiet. I wasn’t finished.”

Matt obeys.

Her hand slides a little until she’s gripping his chin, not tight enough to hurt but firm, the lines of her nails digging slightly into his skin. It’s - a little. Inappropriately affecting, which he is not going to think about. She’s scrutinizing him, he’s sure, which doesn’t help, but at least he still has his glasses on, thin shield that they are.

“That hasn’t changed either. He devotes himself. To people, to causes, and he doesn’t let go. I was never going to have all of him, and accepting that was - not effortless. But I couldn’t love him for the man is and resent it. And you are - you’re trying so hard, aren’t you?”

Matt doesn’t whimper. Not the time, he thinks. Not the time.

“He says you were good to him,” she continues, gentle now, still holding his face still. “Good for him. You’re not actively trying to get him killed, and you blush beautifully. What I’m trying to say, Matthew, is that you’re a lot easier not to resent than the army. So if - if you were willing to try it, sharing. I’d try too.”

She lets go, then, brushes his cheek once with the side of her thumb, just - feather-light, one brief touch, like a token, like an invitation slipped under a door before she pulls away, sits back into her chair. And Matt doesn’t - he feels unmoored, unstable, like the ground fell away beneath him but he isn’t falling, somehow, has no idea how to answer or where to start. Which is why his mouth says, entirely without his permission,

“You know he’d be so pissed if he heard you say army instead of marines.”

And she laughs, a little bit shaky, slashing through all the tension woven back and forth between them, but it’s real too, rich and musical, with an edge of playful meanness that makes Matt want to sit up straighter in his chair.

“Why do you think I say it?” she asks warmly, knowingly, with that faint teasing lilt, and Matt thinks, oh. “The first time was a mistake. He went on such a tear - it was the most words I’d got out of him at one time in two months of dating. He hadn’t even enlisted yet, just planning on it. And he was gesturing everywhere - you know, like Italians do, even though he always holds it in normally, like he was remembering his mother tongue, all motion and growling, with those hands-”

“Yeah,” Matt says, and it feels exactly like jumping off a building, “He. Has really nice hands.”

And she doesn’t hate him for it, and lightning doesn’t strike him down, and Frank doesn’t do a barrel roll in through the window to tell him he shouldn’t, and - suddenly it’s easy, suddenly he needs to speak, to drag out scraps of history, lovely and ugly all together, the time Frank came for him in prison, the time Frank tried to make Matt kill him, to hold them out and say do you recognize this man, did you know- ? And she’s doing it too, because Frank was apparently terrifying and cold-blooded and desperately earnest even as a teenager, breaking a man’s wrist for grabbing her in the street without a second thought, spending hours in the snow staking out her best friend’s asshole ex’s place, because she wanted to grab her stuff without any drama. It feels like the best kind of conspiracy, because people have been telling him he’s insane for years, or just grudgingly accepting it, but he’s never had anyone else get it, how compelling Frank’s conviction is, how deep his quiet affection goes.

“You aren’t what I expected,” Matt admits, when Karen knocks gingerly to let them know they have five minutes before Matt has to leave to go take witness statements, even though he probably should have. She’s wise and bright and twisty and gregarious in a way Frank doesn’t know how to be, but they have the same indomitable core, the same fierce ruthlessness, the same fathomless protective streak. Of course this is what she’s like; of course this is who he married.

“You aren’t what I expected either,” Maria says, and Matt can hear the shape of her smile in it. She stands again, smoothes down her skirts. “Thank you,” she murmurs. “Thank you for loving him,” and this time Matt doesn’t try to deny or downplay it. “Now get me the rest of my life back. I need a house so I can invite you to dinner, understand?”

“Yes ma’am,” Matt agrees, head ducking a little, because he’s smiling too, the one he knows is sort of goofy and too much. She clicks her tongue at him, then leans over to kiss his forehead before she goes, one quick press, hot and dry, like running his finger through a candle flame too fast to burn.

***

It’s another two days before Matt sees Frank again, but he doesn’t smell any more thoroughly of blood than usual, so Matt doesn’t push it. Loose ends isn’t really what he wants to know, anyway, and there’s relief in being able to admit that to himself, even if his throat feels tight and he can’t stop tugging at the edge of his sleeves.

After fifteen minutes of mostly-silence, while Matt pretends to be working on a file and Frank peels and chops potatoes, Frank seems to come abruptly to a decision, puts a lid on the pot (softly, but it still clangs in Matt’s hearing), then invades the couch next to him. He pulls Matt’s computer away, tugs out the earbuds that Matt realizes have been incriminatingly not plugged in this whole time, and wraps his hands tight around Matt’s wrists.

Matt sucks in a breath, suddenly aware of how long it’s been, feeling his skin tingle and his shoulders ease, just from the hard lock of Frank’s grip, like a promise, I got you, I’m not letting go.

(She said he didn’t. She would know. Wouldn’t she?)

“Talk,” Frank says, and it isn’t his usual order, but this isn’t their usual scene, if it’s a scene at all, and - it’s still what Matt needs.

“Maria came to the office,” Matt says, before he can second-guess himself and worry about phrasing. Frank draws a sharp breath, two steps down from an actual gasp, and his hands tighten on Matt’s wrists, enough to hurt just a little, and it’s good, solid and reassuring and real. “Did she tell you?” Matt asks, even though he knows already from Frank’s reaction.

“No.” A deep breath, although his heart is still slow, “We haven’t - I haven’t seen her since. Right after. Tell me what?” And, yeah, there’s yearning there, banked down, patience and strain braided together.

“She said we should. Share you. If that made you happy.” Matt’s heartbeat is so loud in his own ears that it almost eclipses Frank’s; Frank has to be able to feel it, with his fingers around Matt’s pulse point. “Would it?” Matt asks, hates the way his voice falters. “Make you happy?”

Frank leans forward, slow, until their foreheads are touching.

“I don’t know why either of you still wants to put up with me,” he says, wry more than maudlin, even though his heartbeat says it’s only the truth. “But. Yes.” The whole word, unqualified, with only a little flinching.

“You are a lot of trouble,” Matt says, because sometimes if he’s bratty enough, he can get Frank to almost-laugh. “Lots of gizzards to clean up, and so on.” Frank snorts, and Matt feels a smile stretch across his face.

***

Limbo, again.

No, Matt thinks, that’s wrong. It’s more like purgatory, with paradise theoretically in reach, but stuck marking time.

He files a dozen motions and writes briefs and sends Maria stacks of paperwork. She’s right that she and the children are innocent of any crime, and unable to serve as witnesses on any active case; even if Maria were hypothetically in contact with her allegedly felonious husband, spousal privilege would prevent her from being subpoenaed. They can’t compel her cooperation, or attempt to solicit her children’s assistance without her permission without disputing her custodial rights. There’s a scuffle over whether her spousal privilege is still in effect post-post-mortem, but if there is no legal connection, they also have no grounds to pursue her. Matt has them coming and going.

The consequences of Insight have left an especially rigorous precedent in case law for privacy rights of those adjacent to “unusual individuals,” even though the actual rights and restrictions of vigilantes are constantly shifting. It helps - even though he hates to use it - that a few of Frank’s most disturbing fans have fixated on her, sent her everything from rambling, probably-harmless schizophrenic letters to actual gore porn starring a lookalike.

You can’t tell him,” she insists, as she hands it over on a thumb drive, because it makes for compelling and unimpeachable evidence that they do need privacy, that having their new records sealed even against government agencies to impede any possible leaks, in the same manner as juvenile records and closed adoptions, serves a legitimate interest. Her hands are steady but her shoulders are shaking - rage, he realizes after a moment, not fear. He steps in to hug her anyway, tentative and then more firmly, hopes it helps ground the buzzing, awful futility he knows too well, when he’s angry with things too big and complicated or too far away to punch.

“...he’s going to find out,” Matt warns, because he learns slowly, when it comes to keeping secrets, but he does learn.

Later,” Maria insists. “It can’t help the case if people connected to me start getting dismembered -”

Which Matt could dispute in a lot of particulars, if he were actually in court, but also she isn’t actually wrong.

“Have you - how did you contact him, anyway? When you told him he could see the kids?”

“Borrowed a stranger’s phone in the women’s bathroom while we were out getting basic housing supplies. But I didn’t want to overuse that, Bridge is suspicious enough.”

“You’ll see him soon,” Matt promises, prays that he can deliver.

***

The fourth amendment is mostly useless, in between Frank’s suspected presence constituting probable cause in itself, and the ease of setting up stakeouts just outside private property lines, circumventing the need for a warrant. Instead, after a flash of insight, shamelessly tarring paparazzi, punks, anarchist pervert stalkers and law enforcement with one brush, Matt gets indefinite surveillance based on notoriety derived from Maria’s personal life ruled as harassment across the board; a few well-twisted precedents and they effectively have restraining orders on New York State police, the NYPD, and the entire federal government.

Not iron-clad, but effective enough to sue like hell and delegitimize the arrest and massively complicate Frank’s trial if they caught him that way, anyway, and nobody wants that. “Imagine if you had double jeopardy,” Matt says, and he knows all his teeth are out and he’s a little bit high on the adrenaline of it, but he figures he’s entitled. “Imagine.”

“You’re my favorite shark,” Frank promises, warm gratitude under the easy ribbing, and pulls Matt into bed. He’s sleeping with Matt again - only sleeping, kissing the back of Matt’s neck sometimes, although he won’t let Matt kiss him back.

He hasn’t said so, but Matt suspects it would feel like cheating, when he still hasn’t been able to confirm the agreement with her face to face, when she and Frank still haven’t had a chance to be alone together. There’s only a few more pieces that need to fall into place, finalized records through clerks sworn to secrecy, haggling over numbers in the emotional distress suit, acquiring property under the new names, the logistics of actually retrieving the Castles’ belongings surreptitiously from storage lockers. Soon, Matt tells both of them, and he’s telling himself too. Patience comes easier than he’s used to, his sense of the future like some delicately alate thing lifting inside of him, instead of an axe waiting to fall.

***

Dinner is reunion is housewarming is a mess of unpacking and sneezing at dust; suddenly the last obstacles fall away, and all of it is happening at once. Matt gives Frank his key; they walk in the front door. Lisa barrels into him, braids trailing behind her. He swings her around, almost toppling a precarious pile of probably-worthless old DVDs. Frank Junior follows, a little more - warily might be overstating the case, and he doesn’t seem shy, either, approaching straightforwardly, no shuffling, but in his own time. Frank crouches down when he gets close, puts himself level with his son’s eyes.

“Hey, scout,” he says gently, his heartbeat skipping up a little with nerves.

“Is Matt gonna be our new dad when you disappear again?” Frank Junior asks, and Matt chokes and Lisa hisses “Frankie,” but he keeps trudging on, with stubborn suspicion. “Cause he hugs mom when you’re gone and she smiles at him a lot. Am I gonna hafta change to my name again?”

Frank is choking too, although it’s mostly trying not to laugh.

“I don’t wanna be Matt Junior. No offense!” He adds quickly.

“...none taken,” Matt manages, dryly.

“You don’t have to change your name again,” Frank promises. “And Matt and your mom have been working really hard so that I can stay for good, this time.”

“Really?” It’s Lisa who asks, beating both Matt and her brother to it, small and tenuous and hungry, only letting herself show it with the offer made.

“Really,” he says firmly. “You want to shake on it?” Lisa swallows, hesitates, and it’s Frank Junior who says “Maybe later, Dad,” like the tiniest diplomat.

Frank says “That’s fair,” and they both relax a little. He doesn’t say what Matt’s role is going to be, but - how would you explain that to a kindergartener anyway? Frank hoists Junior onto his shoulders while he squirms and shrieks, then reports in distracted fascination about the bumps in the popcorn ceiling.

Maria comes out of the kitchen in a wave of cooking scents, tomato and garlic and basil and nutmeg and sage, and Frank goes still when he spots her - not rigid, not scared, just entranced, like he forgot how to do anything but stare.

“Hey,” she says, a little husky as she steps in close, “Welcome home.” She cups his face in both hands, kisses him slow and deep, an ocean kiss, the kind you could get lost in.

Frank Junior makes an inarticulate noise of discomfort, something like, “Gehhalallgererl,” and then, “Matt, save me. I’m gonna jump.”

“You probably shouldn’t ask a blind man to catch you,” Matt warns, although he leans his cane against a stack of boxes, steps more gingerly than he needs to toward the three of them.

“Too late,” says Frank Junior dourly, in the voice of the unjustly doomed. His parents are still kissing. “Parkour!” He flops backward enthusiastically, still suspended by his knees over Frank’s shoulders and Frank’s grip on his ankles, so then he’s just hanging upside-down against Frank’s back.

“Mmmff.”

Matt gets his hands under the kid’s armpits so he can ease him out of Frank’s grip and right-side-up again. “Where did you even learn that word?”

“Lisa,” says Frank Junior.

“Internet,” says Lisa. “It’s super fast now.”

Frank and Maria are laughing, softly, having moved to just holding each other, swaying slightly as if to music only they can hear. Finally Frank turns, says, “Thanks for the assist,” and Matt can hear the faint skin-on-fabric friction of Maria pushing him forward, hand flat in the middle of his back. Matt puts Frank Junior back down on his feet, and then Frank is leaning in and kissing him, just the same way, long and lazy and dedicated, a kiss full of time waited and time promised, a focal point of patient care, tying them together. Matt melts.

God,” Frank Junior despairs. “There’s no escape.”

“Huhn,” says Lisa.

“Are you sure,” Matt mumbles, as soon as Frank breathes enough to give him the chance, “They -”

“They’ve been through weirder,” Frank points out. And it must be true, because Lisa is tugging on Frank Junior’s wrist, saying, “Come on, help me set the table until they’re done being gross,” and Frank Junior is letting himself be towed.

Frank is glancing back at Maria, says “Was that -” and stops short. Practice is often different than theory. She reaches over, grips the back of his neck, and he shivers, once, all the way down.

“I’m alright with it,” Maria says lightly, a little amused, easing the way with understatement.

“I keep thinking I’m dreaming,” Frank murmurs, tentative and heavy with emotion.

“You never had a dream this nice,” Maria tells him, tart enough to slice through all the silken tethers of his of fears.

“...I really haven’t,” Frank admits.

“Whatever you’re boiling is going to overflow in a minute,” Matt warns, and they all stumble toward the kitchen, reluctant to be separated even by a few steps, Maria’s hand sliding down to catch one of Frank’s, Matt tucking fingertips into his opposite elbow as they navigate the jungle of boxes.

***

Dinner is delicious, hearty and fragrant and warm, infused with a surreal idyllic dreaminess even though Matt only has one glass of wine. The kids puncture it periodically, impolitic and outrageous by turns. Lisa makes a concerted but futile attempt to get Frank or Matt - she doesn’t seem to be picky - to side against Maria on the subject of whether she can have a pony; Frank Junior brings the evening to a brief but screeching halt when, after five minutes of working himself up, interrupts an anecdote about Lisa’s spider-man sighting to ask about the Punisher.

Matt freezes, and Maria bites her lip, catches herself and makes a conscious decision not to hold her breath. Frank tells him, gravely, carefully, that it was him, that he did a lot of bad things, to bad people, because it was something he had to do, even though a lot of people didn’t like it.

“But you’re more important, now,” he says, which is not exactly the same as I don’t need to anymore, but - Frank Junior says “Okay,” and goes back to his agnelotti.

Lisa, unlike Matt and her mother, has been eating the entire time, and betrays no reaction to the topic at all.

***

After dinner, Matt washes up while Maria dries and finds places to put things away, Matt more than slightly distracted by Frank’s low voice in Frank Junior’s room, reading a bedtime story about four siblings who find a coin that gives you exactly half of what you wish for. Maria offers Matt coffee, or brandy, after they finish the clean-up, but Matt demurs. Pretty soon Frank will be tucking both kids in; Matt knows he should go, wonders how to be gracious about it.

But Maria says, “Come move some boxes for me, then,” and he follows her back into the living room.

“I see how it is,” Matt mutters, “Now that I solved all your legal problems I’m only good for manual labor,” and Maria laughs.

“And decoration. But none of these were labeled when they got confiscated, and I want to find something.” So they work their way through the cardboard towers, Matt unstacking, Maria looking and labeling each one in marker before closing the flaps up having Matt stack them up again, refusing to be distracted from her mission.

Matt drowns a little, all dust and ink, but the particular musty smell when Maria finally murmurs, “Aha,” is distinct, old paper and treated leather and the cool hint of gilt.

“Books?” Matt asks, wiping a faintly sweaty fringe of hair off his forehead; all the heavy lifting is a very different kind of workout than jumping around as Daredevil.

“Poetry,” Maria says, and “Frank used to love these.” And - it’s still a little like tripping over an unexpected curb out of arrogance, without Foggy there to warn him, this completely unexpected piece of the person he’d fallen in with. But Matt reaches into the box and picks one up, runs a finger down the spine, feels the old-fashioned embossed title: Lyrical Ballads, With A Few Other Poems, Wordsworth and Tennyson. Another is Percy Shelly. Kipling and Coleridge. Khalil Gibran.

“The Romantics,” Matt realizes, “More or less,” and has no further idea what to do with the information.

“Mmhm,” Maria corroborates, hunting through the box. Frank is kissing Lisa on the forehead now, telling her to sleep tight. “Blake was his favorite.”

Frank’s footsteps slip from Matt’s hearing range into Maria’s as he returns to the cramped living room.

“What -”

“Matt helped me find your books,” Maria says, and Frank drops, a little heavily, kneels next to them to examine the contents.

“God,” he says softly, running his hands over the old binding. “I can’t remember the last time - these were my mother’s. And her mother’s.”

“I thought you might appreciate it,” Maria says, runs her fingers through his hair, and he kisses her again, not as endlessly as before, faster, eager.

“Thank you,” Frank says, not-quite-breathless after, the sound oscillating a little, turning to Matt halfway through, while Maria’s eyes fall on the box again.

“Oh, and here’s the Omar Khayyam, Frank, do you remember -”

Frank groans. “Please don’t tell Matt that story -”

“It was our second date,” Maria plows onward, triumphant, merciless, and Frank covers his face preemptively with both hands. “A picnic, in Astoria park, and he was trying to be smooth but he was so flustered -”

“Save me,” Frank mutters, half-muffled.

“So he starts reciting, very seriously, A jug of bread, a loaf of wine, and thou -

Matt can’t help it, laughter crackling out of him, and Maria dissolves into giggles too. “I thought he might actually jump into the river when he realized. He was so red."

Matt pulls at Frank’s wrist, puts a palm to his cheek, warm with blood rising right under the surface.

“Like this?” He asks, and Frank huffs. “Very nearly,” Maria confirms.

“Hush, you harpies,” Frank scolds without any real rancor. “You’ll wake the children.”

“They aren’t actually asleep yet,” Matt points out, although Frank Junior’s breathing is already in the hazy halfway-there dozing cadence. “I could take them out tomorrow,” he continues, on a sudden wild instinct he has not thought through at all, beyond the realization that it’s a Friday night, and they won't start at their new school under their new names for two more days. “If you wanted to...I mean...be. Not quiet.”

“Lawyer, box lifter, and babysitter?” Maria asks after a moment, leaning over to kiss Matt’s cheek. Her hair swishes softly against the edge of his face and she’s still a little hotter-than-human in a way that sets Matt’s pulse skittering. “You’re a full-service hero, aren’t you?”

I could be, Matt thinks, and manages to bite that down; this feels like it’s actually going to work, being happy for each other and for Frank with each other. Matt isn’t going to ruin it with flirting. “Keep this one,” Maria is telling Frank faux-sternly, and he’s ducking his head, saying “Yes, ma’am,” very sincerely.

Frank walks Matt to the door after that, holds Matt’s hips gingerly and kisses him for a lingering goodbye pressed against the inside frame, like an odd reverse date. “Come by at nine,” Frank tells him, “We’ll all have breakfast.”

“If your children aren’t already traumatized,” Matt needles, just a little. He doesn’t mind, not really, or he wouldn’t have offered at all; Frank has been waiting for her a long time, and Matt can wait a little longer. Still - he’s allowed a bit of teasing.

“It’s fine,” Frank promises, because the bastard always fights dirty. “She’ll gag me until we’re in the clear.”

Jokes don’t register as lies. Matt spends the entire trip home wondering. He gets himself off three minutes after he shuts his door, pants undone but fully dressed on the couch, trying desperately to think just of Frank’s weight holding him down, and not what Maria might gag him with, nor the smell of her hair or the grip of her nails or the sound of her laugh.

***

Breakfast is messier than dinner, Frank making pancakes while Frank Junior demands funny shapes and Lisa throws the occasional blueberry at him, Maria whisking maple syrup directly into homemade whipped cream, and then depositing a blob of it directly on Matt’s nose under the pretext of giving him a taste. She and Frank both have the easy, loose-limbed motions of the well-laid, and the warm bounce of further anticipation. They’ve showered, Maria’s hair still damp and drifting imprints of apple shampoo after her, but they didn’t bother stripping the sheets. Matt can smell heavy traces of both of them even through the closed bedroom door, Frank’s familiar salt-sweat and musky sex, Maria sweet and savoury and rich - Matt shoves a pancake in his mouth, then buries his nose in a cup of black coffee, inhaling deeply. It doesn’t help.

Frank makes the kids promise to stay close to Matt, and Lisa promises to watch Junior unprompted, and then they’re on their way. Matt can hear Frank sweeping Maria into a bridal carry from the sidewalk, tossing her back onto the groaning bed, kissing his way up her leg and begging with a quiet, unpretentious humility for permission to untie her bathrobe. She scratches her nails over his scalp, hums contemplatively, prolonging the wait before acquiescing.

It’s not - it shouldn’t be a big deal. Matt has been hearing people, strangers, friends, professors, everyone, have sex for longer than he’s known what sex is. Mostly he’s over it, has long since resigned himself in self-defence to some degree of inevitable background grunting, less unpleasant than plenty of other ubiquitous sounds and smells of packed-in metropolitan humanity, but certainly not particularly appealing.

They. Are. Maybe because Matt helped make it happen, or just because it’s them, or because twenty years of involuntary voyeurism and a few months of sudden-but-intimate enforced celibacy have worked some terrible fresh alchemy on his erotic imagination. Matt’s always been a pay-attention-to-me kind of sub, hurt me, hold me, tell me I’m pretty, but he thinks he could listen to them for hours, kneeling still and quiet and desperate next to the bed. Be good, Maria would say, Wait your turn, before ignoring him completely, and Matt would have no idea if she was flaunting how eager and ardent they were or if they’d genuinely forgotten he was there.

Fortunately Lisa knows where they’re going, hustles them down the block and out of range before Matt’s daze becomes any more unfortunate than privately mortifying; after that they take the subway, which Matt considers fair penance for his sins. Parks and movies are both out, so they end up at the aquarium, which is more enjoyable than Matt expects. Lisa dutifully reads him all the signs, but it’s Frank Junior who really takes to narrating, making up for a limited vocabulary with wonder and enthusiasm, and Matt can hear things in the water - swooping whistles and clicks he thinks must be dolphins, echoing from chamber to chamber, honking chattering penguins, the articulated joints of crabs, the rush of a squid propelling itself rapidly away from a shark’s slow two-chambered heart.

There’s even a petting pool, with friendly, goofy-shaped stingrays and curious octopi and little bamboo sharks; Matt can feel the ripples as one gets close, the tiny zing of its electro-sensory organs under the strange crenelations of its scales when it slides under his hand. One of the octopi wraps a tentacle around Frank Junior’s wrist because “It can tell I’m the friendliest,” and then won’t let go until Lisa distracts it with a puzzle jar. “You know I’m not just gonna rescue you forever,” she warns him, but her heart says lie.

This becomes somewhat less endearing - or maybe more, Matt can’t even tell - when she pulls him into a bit of an alcove while her brother is entranced by glowing jellyfish. “You’re Daredevil, right?” she whispers, and Matt manages not to jump out of his skin. “What? Um, I don’t think -”

“Shut up,” she interrupts him, more impatient than mad. “I did some research. Daredevil’s the only guy the Punisher worked with that didn’t end hideously, and he trusts you, so, obviously.”

“Is this really the place to talk about this?” Matt asks weakly.

“Yup,” she says, unconcerned. “All the water filter equipment interferes with outside surveillance.” It is a fairly constant low-level churning, now that she mentions it. “Teach me how to be a ninja.” No wheedling resignation like her pony request; just a bald demand, direct and peremptory, like she can’t imagine being denied.

She’s nine, which fact lodges in Matt’s sternum like a cold shard of the ice queen’s mirror, makes his stomach go queasy. She’s wearing pony tails, for goodness sake. Frank would probably, actually kill him.

“I can’t,” he whispers, and she puts her hands on her hips.

“If you don’t,” she threatens, “I’ll find someone else to do it. I bet there’s tons of people who’d want to train the Punisher’s kid.”

No fucking kidding, Matt thinks, just the shortlist is terrifying, and the awful thing is, he doesn’t think she’s bluffing. She’s clenching her jaw and setting her shoulders the way Frank does when he’s hunkering down, taking a position and refusing to budge. She has no idea what she'd be getting herself into, but she isn't bluffing.

“Shit! Alright, just - don’t do that. Okay, we’ll - I’ll figure something out.”

“Ninja. Lessons,” Lisa reiterates, and pokes him in the chest. No quarter given. “You find a place, I’ll find excuses. You have a week.”

She practically skips away to rejoin her brother, while Matt wonders morosely what the hell he’s gotten into.

***

By the time they get back, the bedroom smells even more overpowering than before, even though the sheets are in the laundry. Matt is pretty sure they had at least one round in the kitchen, too, traces of sweat mixed with leftovers for lunch and lemony counter cleaner spray. Frank Junior immediately goes to regale his mother with the story of his encounter and show off his new stuffed octopus from the giftshop. (Matt was weak to his pleading; Lisa had loftily declined a souvenir of her own, making it perfectly, wordlessly clear that she would not be bought off regarding their arrangement.) Frank kisses Matt hello and Matt has to fight not to whimper - even after showering, under toothpaste and more coffee, he can taste Maria in Frank’s mouth.

“Please tell me it’s my turn tonight,” Matt begs, quietly enough for only the two of them to hear, and Frank huffs his half-laugh, kisses him again. “Yeah, Red,” he agrees, “I think you’ve earned it and then some.”

Which still doesn’t mean immediately - there are more stories about the aquarium, and Maria orders Thai delivery while Lisa tries to teach Frank Junior how to count cards (“Why does your nine-year-old know how to count cards?” Matt asks, and Frank shrugs, says entirely too calmly and innocently, “It’s an important skill,” and “She can riffle shuffle, too.”) And then the kids invite him to arbitrate an arcane dispute “Because Dad always takes your side!” “Does not!” and Frank recuses himself hastily to set the table. Matt ends up explaining about braille cards, and then Frank Junior digs a bag of actual marbles out of a box somewhere, and Lisa invents a new, vaguely rummy-like game based on size and whether the marbles are glass, metal, stone, or clay, using cups to hide their ‘hands’ from each other. Lisa reads the next chapter of Half Magic after dinner while Frank brushes out her hair and redoes it in a french braid, occasionally helping with a long word. There isn’t room for all five of them in Frank Junior’s room, so when they’re done cleaning up Matt and Maria end up on the couch, side-by-side thanks to the boxes still occupying half of it.

“Are you sure,” Matt starts, and is immediately stymied by how to say it, how to navigate between the rudeness of being too crass and the ridiculousness of being too circumspect. But he can’t fuck this up if she’s changed her mind, he can’t. And it’s easier to offer something, sometimes, when you don’t really have it. “I mean, Frank and I -”

“He’s missed you too,” she says kindly, and leans her head on Matt’s shoulder, heat radiating from her cheek through his shirt. Matt doesn’t know if too means the way Frank’s missed her or the way Matt’s missed him, but he supposes it doesn’t matter. He puts an arm around her shoulders, gingerly, and they stay like that until Frank emerges.

***

“What do you want,” Frank asks as they step into Matt’s apartment, familiar enough or illuminated enough by the billboard not to bother turning on the lights, and Matt tries not to think about how hollow all the space seems, now, how sharp the echoes are from the bare wood, how quiet it is, just two heartbeats and the constant LED hum past the window. “I just don’t want to think,” Matt says, and somehow it’s easier to be honest in the absence of the lights’ buzz even though he can’t see them. “Please don’t tease me, just - just wreck me -”

Frank slams him into the wall before he has to say anything else. Everything rattles at once, like the synchronized clamor of every instrument in a symphony tuning up on cue. Matt hitches his legs around Frank’s waist while Frank’s hands slide under his thighs and grip and press, farther up and wide open, until even Matt can feel the stretch in his hamstrings. He devours Matt’s mouth, and Matt can gasp and let his head fall back, let his lips fall open, let himself be devoured.

Frank bites his jaw in sharp little nips, then harder and slower on his throat, working him like Frank wants to drag bruises out from under Matt’s skin with stubbornness alone. When Matt’s making little keening noises with each scrape of teeth and rocking into him a little faster than the pace Frank’s actually setting, Frank finally gets his hands under Matt’s ass and carries him into Matt’s room, tips him onto the bed while Matt sprawls and whines at the loss of contact.

“Get naked then,” Frank tells him, warm like he’s laughing at Matt on the inside, and reaches under the bed for -

“Holy shit,” Matt pants, gets a little tangled in the middle of wriggling his jeans off, because Frank is unrolling the goddamn wool throw rug he found at a flea market specifically so he could make Matt suffer through rug burn. Frank is a tiny bit diabolical regarding sadistic pervertibles. “I hate you,” Matt says through his shirt before he tosses it away, scrambling to his knees on what he swears is the scratchiest carpet in existence.

Frank backhands him across the face, just right, so it stings and sings, the crack and the bright shock of it like white lightning through the messy throbbing red of his world on fire, and Matt’s head snaps to the side and he rocks with it.

“No,” Frank says, pitiless, “On your back.”

They’ve never done that, not with the rug, and Matt whimpers just thinking about it, but he goes, and Frank stretches over him, belt unbuckled and shirt unbuttoned but still mostly dressed, corners of fabric and the cool tip of the buckle's metal prong dragging lightly over Matt’s skin due to gravity. Frank kisses one of the bruises on Matt’s throat, then reaches for Matt’s hands, one after the other, wraps them around the tassels at the edge of the rug so Matt can hold it, moderate the friction a little.

“You got anything to say, Murdock,” Frank asks, part of his weight on one elbow to Matt’s side and his other hand planted firmly against Matt’s bare chest, his own trick used against him, so that if he lies out of stoic habit and says no when he needs to say uncle, Frank will feel the lie.

“I want it,” Matt tells him, completely true, “Please, please -”

He keeps saying it as Frank bites his way down Matt’s torso until the word dissolves into noise when Frank’s teeth pinch one of his nipples. Frank bends Matt’s legs again, sucks more bruises into his thighs while Matt fights desperately not to squirm, because every motion makes the terrible prickly rasp of the carpet drag infinitesimally against his back. Matt’s so hard that he’s whining constantly, now, already leaking, and the faint weight of it sticking and tugging at the skin of his glans is its own tiny torture, the accumulated liquid not quite heavy enough yet to fall on his stomach.

“Gorgeous,” Frank mutters, his already rumbly voice roughened by desire, and licks the base, jostling Matt’s dick just enough that the first droplets shake loose and spatter hot against his skin. Matt shakes, groans, and the rug is worse than cotton, worse than sandpaper or alleyway brick, fire on one side and Frank on the other.

Frank eases Matt’s legs back down so his knees are bent and his feet are braced on the floor - on the hard hardwood, because the rug isn’t large enough to bother Frank, even if he were actually undressed. Matt gulps down a few breaths, then screams when Frank grips his sack with one hand and the base of his cock in the other, not tightly enough to call a squeeze, exactly, but unrelenting nonetheless, and sucks the head into his mouth.

He bobs down, once, then pulls off but not actually away, so that his tongue brushes over the tip of Matt’s cock again when he licks his lips. “I like that sound,” he says, so Matt can feel the heat of his breath and the shape of his grin.

“My neighbors are gonna kill you,” Matt gasps weakly. “The underworld will never know. The greatest mystery of our ti-IIIMEOHGOD-”

He gets one of his legs over Frank’s shoulder just so he can kick him weakly in the back, which does absolutely nothing to stop Frank going down on him while refusing to let him get off, and fingering him while refusing to let him get off, and rimming him while refusing to let him get off, until Matt is literally sobbing. His back feels like he’s been skinned, peeled open to reveal the raw bloody hungry core of him, all fire and yawning emptiness, and then Frank is scooping him up as gently as he can, and the new texture of his hairy arm pressed in one solid bar against Matt’s back makes him scream again, softer this time for lack of air or strength. Frank tips him front-first into his silk sheets and Matt is too boneless even to rock his hips against the mattress, just shuddering and making low, helpless animal noises, too overwhelmed to process anything but soft and agony. There’s footsteps, a small crack, and a cold herbal-green smell, which turns into blessed, blessed coolness dripping onto his back.

Matt has no idea how long it takes him to remember that he actually has an aloe plant, more often used in conjunction with candle wax, but it doesn’t seem terribly important, even then - nothing seems important except Frank’s calloused fingers gently soothing Matt’s ruined skin and Matt’s aching desperation to be fucked.

He can’t seem to get his mouth around words any more, not even please, all his sounds just sliding through him in endless, wavering moans, but he spreads his legs wider, moans pointedly louder, and finally, finally, Frank pulls Matt’s hips up a little and presses bluntly into him, gasps and jerks forward a little farther in tiny involuntary stutters between slow, deliberate thrusts. He takes Matt so carefully, filling him heavy and thick, pushing deep inside him, but keeping his body angled so that even his panting is far enough away for the puffs of air to be cool instead of searing on Matt’s abused skin, one arm wrapped around Matt’s abdomen to hold him up, one hand still slightly slick and tingly with traces of aloe he failed to wipe off on the sheets wrapping around Matt’s dick and stroking him easily in rhythm.

Matt’s orgasm feels like it comes from every part of him at once, from his nipples rubbing against the sheets and the sweet throbbing patches on his neck and thighs and the tip of his nose and the backs of his weak knees and his curling toes, like he’s being swallowed up by light, like it’s pouring through him and overflowing the bounds of his skin, maybe erasing them altogether.

The next time Matt’s conscious, Frank is wiping him clean, inside out and out, so he doesn’t wake up crusted in sweat. Frank makes him take an anti-inflammatory which is probably also a painkiller, but Matt is too out of it to object, and drink most of a bottle of gatorade, and Matt falls asleep on the dry side of the bed in the middle of a second tender application of aloe.

***

In the morning they have coffee but no breakfast; Matt goes to church and Frank goes home.

***

Matt spends most of the service on his knees so as not to forget and lean back against the pew. Normally Matt relishes all the lingering aches and stings, and - well, he can’t pretend he doesn’t actually feel sort of spectacular, fizzing with energy under the soreness, breath coming loose and easy like Frank expanded his rib cage by a couple of notches and untied the knots in his shoulders.

But there’s a crumpled-up pang lodged in his sternum somewhere, because of course there is, because Matt doesn’t know how to be happy, doesn’t know how to get everything he wants and then not want something else.

“I’m coveting my boyfriend’s wife,” he tells Father Lantom, too fed up with himself to dance around it, forehead resting against the old wood of the box. Today a latte in the sunshine feels like too much. But it’s not just Maria - it’s the kids, and the kitchen table, all the great messy warmth of a place where he is so welcomed but doesn’t actually belong.

“Oh, Matthew,” Father Lantom sighs. “Never anything simple with you, is it?”

But it feels good to admit it out loud, to lay it out before God, to resolve to do better, and be grateful for all his unexpected blessings.

***

Somehow, in spite of all the ominously vague ‘loose ends’ and bedtime stories and meticulous planning to allow Frank to live with his family without getting immediately arrested, Matt didn’t actually expect him to stop being the Punisher. Not entirely.

But he….does?

He cooks, and cleans, and unpacks things, and reads books and buys groceries and and does Lisa’s hair. He drops them off at school in the morning, although whatever Lisa said to convince him to let Matt pick them up from “afterschool sports” holds. He remodels a home office for Maria, from which she starts spending several hours a day typing, although she won’t tell either of them what.

“I’ll tell you if it works,” she says, and starts disappearing for a few hours at a time, usually in business casual.

Frank, meanwhile, barely leaves the house at all, unless it’s on errands or to be with Matt. When Matt realizes he can’t remember the last time he smelled gunpowder on him, he has to go into the bathroom and splash his face with cold water.

It’s not bad. It’s just - strange. Just. He’d been so adamant, so utterly immovable for so long. Matt had completely given up on getting him to stop, and now -

“What’d you do with your armor?” He asks, when he can’t keep the curiosity in any more. There were always more guns, but the vest, the skull - there was more than history there. Matt tries to imagine it going up in flames, sinking in the river, locked away like a haunted relic, and his stomach churns and twists, resentment and relief and wary incomprehension. He can’t have got rid of it.

Frank glances over the top of one of his mother’s books. The old bindings creak differently. Matt can hear something, with tiny hinges - reading glasses. Sliding a little down his nose.

“It’s close if I need it,” he says, measured, carefully neutral.

Which - makes more sense, and doesn’t, at the same time.

“What does if mean?” Matt asks, and he kind of wants to go to his knees next to the armchair, have this conversation while Frank is petting his hair, just for the reassurance of it, but he can’t. Lisa is in her room pretending to do math homework but actually reading something on the internet on her phone, and Junior is in the kitchen, fussing while Maria trims his hair. This isn’t Matt’s place.

“Like I said. This is more important.” He’s always been a man who knew his priorities. “But someday someone is going to find us, and probably it’ll be someone with a grudge.”

A shiver goes down Matt’s spine; Frank doesn’t sound that different, is the thing, doesn’t sound cold and clipped like he used to. Just - facts. He isn’t searching out trouble, any more. But he’s waiting, eyes open, he’s ready. Part of him is always going to be ready.

It’s sad, but a little bit soothing, in the way the familiar is always soothing.

“You know I’d protect them too,” Matt says quietly. “You know I’d do anything to protect them.” He doesn’t say it like a question, even though really it is. He can’t bear to find out if the answer was no.

“Mmm,” Frank agrees after a moment. “I’m - thank you.” And, “Be careful, there are emergency stun grenades on a lot of the high shelves.”

***

“Did you know about,” Matt asks Maria a few days later, in a rush, before second-guessing himself and biting his tongue, before realizing that she must know, because she uses the same cupboards and she can fucking see.

“Nevermind,” he says, and she touches his arm for a few seconds, but doesn’t push it.

***

Lisa is as good as her word.

“They think we’re at an afterschool thing,” she says, dropping her backpack against the wall of Fogwell’s on Monday. “Sports. It’s basically true.” Frank Junior sits on the floor next to the bag and pulls out a coloring book, crayons, and the packet of glittery stickers with which Lisa has, apparently, bribed him and sworn him to secrecy.

She doesn’t have supersenses, but Matt blindfolds her anyway, half because he wants her to listen for the faint whoosh of a blow coming from any angle, and half because he hopes she’ll feel stupid and impatient enough to give up on it.

She doesn’t.

She listens, learns with the same dedicated intensity Frank ever brought to a fight. She learns how to dodge, and how to fall, how to roll back onto her feet. She says ‘okay,’ every time Matt corrects her and sets her jaw, does the move again and again, doesn't ask when she gets to learn to punch and doesn’t complain. Her arms have to be black and blue from falling on them, smacking the ground to distribute the force and protect the rest of her body, but she keeps going.

“Is it perfect?” she demands, when he tells her to take a break, drink some water. It’s a little hard to gauge, because Lisa runs hot by default just like Maria, but she’s not sweating enough, the salts in it becoming too concentrated.

“It’s not going to be perfect today, Lisa.”

“Sam,” she corrects him. “It’s Sam Rook in public, now.”

“There’s no one here but us,” Matt points out, and she shakes her head, braid swishing a little against her back.

“Doesn’t matter. We have to get into the right habits.”

She’s a born soldier, Matt thinks, and hates himself a little for thinking it. He can imagine what she’d be like if someone like Stick got to her, nose down, eyes steady, honed for war. She’s not lonely like him or wild like Elektra: she’s tough all the way down, like bedrock, an implacable will that just hasn’t had time to inscribe itself on her body yet.

Practice, practice.

“I’m the sensei here,” Matt says, “And I’m telling you to get a drink of water, Sam.

She goes.

She comes by it honestly, and maybe that’s the scariest part.

***

Every fight comes down to balance, balance in your stance, in your steps, in your strike. Matt works on his balance.

He brings the kids home after training (their home, he’s not letting himself get confused) and doesn’t stay for dinner every time he wants to, or even every time he’s invited. Once a week, maybe twice, that’s reasonable.

The third time he declines, citing a casework backlog, plans with Foggy, rumors of a new protection racket featuring sewer gators (who knows, these days, and he is definitely going to deal with at least one of those things) Maria catches his wrist, and Matt can’t move.

“You know I mean it, don’t you?” she asks, just slightly uncertain. Her fingers are a brand through his sleeve. “I’m not just being polite. You’re never intruding.”

I know your thighs smell like your husband’s shaving cream, Matt doesn’t say. He’s always intruding.

“I know,” he lies. “It’s just -” Strength is useless. He is incapable of pulling away. Matt doesn’t know how to finish his sentence but she releases him anyway.

“You have your own life,” she says, “We get it.” They’re always we, now.

She’s not wrong. Matt does have his own life, now that Daredevil never works with the Punisher anymore and Nelson & Murdock are done with her case. Matt readjusts.

***

There’s two weeks where Matt only sees them for the afternoon hand-off, because he is busy, doing legal research over pizza on his couch to make up for the technically-business hours he skips out of early to work with Lisa, and then pulling double patrols, listening everywhere and trying to coordinate a handful of veteran and aspiring Defenders who all want to smack down the sudden weedlike profusion of crime - and sloppy, dangerous copycats - popping up as people start to believe Frank is actually retired. It’s an all-hands-on-deck situation, which Matt has zero interest in telling Frank about, because Matt knows he’ll be insufferably smug, or worse, conflicted.

When Frank climbs through his window Saturday evening, Matt’s lying on the couch reading statute revisions one-handed on his refreshable display and holding an ice pack to his ribs with the other. He throws out all the dubious leftovers Matt couldn’t bring himself to actually open and check on, makes him chicken soup full of carrots and onions and marrow, and lemon ginger tea. They don't quite go together but are still both obnoxiously healthy, and Matt feels markedly less exhausted when he’s finished them.

“....are you staying?” Matt asks, when Frank hovers instead of curling around him on the couch.

“Should I?” Frank asks, “You’ve been-”

“Busy,” Matt interrupts, before he hears Frank say distant with a tone Matt can’t parse. “Just busy.”

Frank slides in next to him, and Matt wriggles onto his lap until Frank gets the message and squeezes his ass. They kiss quietly for a while, wet and lazy, slow but shameless, until Matt is itching for more. Matt gets most of his clothes off without having to stop, but when he peels off Frank’s jacket and lets it drop to the floor, something clatters out of a pocket, and Frank stills for just long enough that Matt knows he either brought it on purpose, or very much didn’t. Matt tightens his knees around Frank’s thighs and then bends over backwards to grab it, straining his bruised ribs a little, but it’s worth showing off for the way he can feel Frank twitch through his pants. Blood rushes to Matt’s head as his fingertips trace the little metal object.

“A binder clip?” he asks, trying not to sound too breathy as he curls himself upright again.

“There’s a couple,” Frank admits, “Other pockets.” One each, Matt realizes, so he wouldn’t hear them rattle together. Matt rocks his hips and kisses Frank hard, presses the clip into Frank’s hand, and he clamps it over Matt’s nipple without needing any more prompting. Frank fastens the rest of them on all Matt’s most sensitive spots. It feels like nothing at first, but then the pressure builds and builds, and each cruel, miniscule bite feels so much deeper than the vulnerable bits of skin they’re attached to.

“Get yourself ready,” Frank tells him, and flicks the mini-clip on the shell of his ear for emphasis. Matt twitches and bites him to stave off a yowl before stalking into the bedroom for the lube.

“You fucker,” Matt mutters, working himself messily, roughly open with two fingers right off, because he needs it, and Frank makes an amused, entirely unrepentant sound from where he’s leaning leisurely in the doorway. Matt can smell his arousal but not enough of it -

“Take your damn pants off before I pass out this time,” he growls. Frank huff-laughs at him, but does it, and as soon as he’s close enough Matt kicks him in the back of the knee and topples him onto the bed, pins him down and climbs back over him.

“Huhn,” Frank says when he realizes what just happened, propping himself partway up on one elbow as Matt lines them up and starts to sink onto him. “Brat.” He slides the other hand up Matt’s chest and twists one of his captured nipples. Matt gasps and shoves down, burning with the sudden stretch after his entirely rushed preparation, the perfect hot counterpoint to the vicious cold pressure of the clips.

“Fuck you,” Matt huffs, and rolls his hips for emphasis.

“Well,” says Frank dryly, and rocks up just slightly, accentuating Matt’s rhythm rather than supplanting it. “If I must.”

Matt leans down to goad Frank into a rush of harsh, biting kisses, rides him hard and desperate until both of them are slick with sweat and losing the beat, jerking rushed and ragged and out of step with each other. Frank starts plucking the clips off and Matt shakes, howls, feels like all the pain trapped in each spot is suddenly let loose to spasm through his whole chest, wracking hurt and blissful relief at the same time, his thighs aching as he surges even faster up and down. Frank grips his shoulder tight and leans up enough to press his mouth over one sore, overstimulated nipple, not sucking or even dragging his tongue over, just surrounding it with wet, gentle heat, and Matt’s done, he’s gone, coming extravagantly over Frank’s stomach and chest, whining helplessly when Matt collapses on top of him and accidentally jostles all his sore spots against Frank’s skin with the burden of his own body weight.

Frank strokes a hand soothingly down Matt’s back, and Matt is too out of it to pick out the individual callouses from the staticky-warm collective sensation while Frank pumps into him a few more times, buries his face in the crook of Matt’s neck, and finally lets go.

Matt recovers first - or, more accurately, can’t stand the feeling of drying jizz anymore first, and drags himself into the shower. By the time he’s out, Frank has stripped and remade the bed, gotten him a new ice pack, and put the one they abandoned on the living room floor back in the freezer. Matt accepts it with a muzzy kiss as Frank passes him on the way to his own shower, and is half-asleep when Frank slides under the clean sheets next to him, spoons up against his back.

“We miss you,” Frank says, and Matt’s heart does an uncomfortable double-kick at that we. “I know none of this is what you signed on for.”

“Not none,” Matt points out, still a little too floaty to keep the innuendo behind his teeth.

“If you don’t want -”

Matt kicks back against Frank’s shin, disgracefully uncoordinated. “I want! What part of that ever made you think -”

“Just, if that’s all -”

“It’s not,” Matt says, too tired and too honest to hide all his stupid wanting, and then his chest squeezes at how raw it sounds, how pathetic. “No fair,” he mutters, a lump in his throat. He suddenly feels prickly all over despite clean skin and clean silk, actually mad. “You dirty cheater, you asked when I was worn out on purpose.”

“Guilty,” Frank admits without a shred of remorse, kisses the back of Matt’s neck, along the line to his shoulder. “Come back, then.”

“It’s not that simple,” Matt says. He can’t just get what he wants.

“Sure it is,” says Frank, punisher-implacable, that level voice he uses when people just don’t know yet that he’s not taking ‘impossible’ for an answer. “My house, my rules.”

“Technically it’s Maria’s house,” Matt points out, which - it works on multiple levels.

“Such a lawyer,” Frank mutters, runs his hand down Matt’s side. “She wants you to be happy too.”

“I was just doing my job,” Matt says, “She doesn’t -” owe me, he thinks, stumbling on the echo.

“She likes you, idiot,” Frank rumbles. “You don’t have to, but -”

“I’ll visit more,” Matt promises. “I really have been busy.” Balance means both sides, Matt reminds himself.

“Okay,” Frank allows, is kind enough to at least pretend to believe it.

***

Matt forgot the way Maria makes things easy. She’s warm and kind and briskly efficient. She draws him in, puts him where she wants him, gives him things to do while Frank is absorbed in the small constant dramas of parenting. Except for his stupid crush, everything is - effortless, as much as Matt ever is with other people. He doesn’t have to worry about whether he’s in the wrong place or doing the wrong thing, whether his blindness is inconvenient or embarrassing, whether he’s missed some critical social cue.

She gives Matt mushrooms to clean while she grates cheese and shucks peas for spaghetti carbonara, a task better suited to smell than sight in any case, in Matt’s opinion. She asks him about funny court stories, of which he in fact has far too many, because the American judicial system, when not a tragedy, is a circus. She laughs in all the right places and bumps him with her hip when she catches him being modest about trials won and the light floral-and-incense-and-woman scent of her threads under everything.

Which is why he isn’t thinking of anything but why not, why when Matt darts in close to steal a slice of bacon out of the pan, and she raps his hand hard with a wooden spoon, Matt makes an unmistakably hungry noise high in his throat, turns his hips just a little too abruptly to hide his reaction, his cheeks heating so fast he knows they must be bright red.

“...oh really,” she asks after a breathless, suspended moment, voice low and arch.

“I,” Matt stammers, fails.

“Frank!” she shouts, projecting to carry through the house, but doesn’t turn her head.

“What?” he calls back.

“I’m kissing your boy!” she informs him - which is, just, monumentally unfair, calling him that, Matt is a grown-up and very toned vigilante who shouldn’t be going weak at the knees - then steps forward to cup Matt’s face where he’s turned away uselessly to try to hide the blush, tugging him into a slow, gentle kiss, coaxing without being tentative at all, like the first step easing into a hot bath.

In the other room, Frank’s chair tips for a moment but doesn’t crash, footsteps coming in a clatter as he scrambles toward the kitchen, hovers in the threshold.

“Well?” Maria asks, and even if her eyes have cut to Frank, Matt can tell from the angle of her breath that her face is still tilted toward his, barely inches away.

“Uh,” says Frank, heart skipping double-time. “As you were.”

She - actually giggles, just a little, and nuzzles Matt’s nose.

“You heard the man,” she says.

“I. Do have very good hearing,” Matt allows, which sounds like a line, which is a line, but is still an entirely necessary reminder to himself that this is actually happening. His heart is beating like a bird thrashing its wings, and he keeps breathing in little hitching gulps. She’s waiting for him, he realizes, they both are; having made their positions concisely, exquisitely clear, they won’t push any further unless he says yes.

His fingertips moving gingerly, as uncertain as if he were normal-blind, until they brush the drape of her blouse, can skate down to settle along the curve of her waist.

“Is this just -” He swallows.

“I don’t know if you noticed,” she murmurs, a little bit teasing but utterly fond, “But unreasonably athletic nerds with too much conviction and no self-preservation are kind of my type.” Matt can’t help a laugh at that, one quick bark, and she keeps going. “So, no. This isn’t just because you made that very lovely noise, a minute ago.” He can hear her smiling, and suddenly he wants more than anything to feel it. So he takes a breath and leans in, catches her mouth with his, savors how soft her lips are, the sharply delicate curve. Maria goes up on her tiptoes, leans into him, threads a hand through his hair. This time, she’s the one making a small, hungry noise, and Matt drags her lower lip slowly between his teeth, lets go and then presses in again, languid and earnest, trying to convey some part of the desperate, hopeful, aching sweetness that’s filling his chest like the air on the first day of spring, when everything blooms at once.

“I want,” Matt says when the kiss finally breaks, like a wave tumbling into foam under its own momentum, their bodies still pressed together. It’s a full sentence, or it feels like one to him. His voice is just as exposed as it was in the under the covers with Frank, but nobody tricked him this time. Just an offer, an open door.

“Do you want to stay?” she asks, and doesn’t say, tonight, even if that’s all she means - Matt nods.

“Good,” she says, no jokes, no frills, heartbeat steady as a drum, shoulders loosening with relief, exactly the way Matt needed to hear it. Then she nudges him toward the doorway, adding, “Go pinch Frank before he has a heart attack,” and Matt wonders in a rare flicker of vision-related jealousy if he looks as dazed as he sounds. Smells.

“I don’t need,” Frank protests, but lets Matt get inside his guard and cut him off with a kiss anyway, then jerks just a tiny bit when Matt pinches his ass.

“Anything other requests?” Matt asks, smirking, while Maria finally flips the bacon, crispy but not charred.

“Not until after dinner,” Maria says, knowingly, and both of them shiver.

“Did you talk about this?” Matt asks, eager but still not quite sure-footed; it’s hard to shake the sense that he’s been outmaneuvered somehow, the instinct that surprise of this magnitude comes before a hard fall.

“Just a little,” Frank says. “That she’d thought about it. But I didn’t want to say too much about you, if you didn’t - we weren’t sure.”

Matt kisses him again instead of asking are you sure now?

***

Dinner feels like all the most excruciating parts of adulthood and of being a teenager again, somehow, dutifully acting responsible while fervently trying to hide impatience and excitement. Later, Matt doesn’t remember any of it, except that Lisa whispers, “Did Matt find out mom said he was too skinny,” to Frank after seeing him gulp down his pasta slightly too fast for courtesy, and Matt almost chokes and has to take a gulp of water to hide it, and - in a separate incident - Maria squeezes his knee once under the table, and he valiantly manages not to squirm.

***

Frank puts the children to bed, and Matt and Maria just stack the plates in the sink without bothering to do more than rinse, too jittery to do the job properly.

“So,” Maria says, as soon as they’ve given up the pretense of real work and retreated to the master bedroom. They’re sitting on the end of the bed, shoes kicked off, Matt’s glasses folded on the nightstand, but nothing further. Her pulse is nervous but her voice is warm and steady and little bit wicked, “Should we wait or get started without him? We’ve already established he likes a show.”

“Ah,” Matt says, profoundly torn, except, “I can - hear him, actually,” because just knowing hypothetically that he has powers doesn’t mean people know the implications. “Reading to them. Which is - very endearing, but not exactly -”

“Conducive?” Maria supplies when he falters, and Matt nods.

“Does it ever bother you?” Matt asks suddenly, and it seems too personal, so much more personal than going to bed with them, but he’s been listening to it since the beginning, and - “That you never tuck them in?” And then, immediately, “I’m sorry, that’s - that came out wrong -”

“When he was away it was just me,” she cuts him off, bluntly but not sharply. “I’ve given plenty of goodnight kisses. More than enough not to feel like I’m shirking.” Matt winces, but she sounds thoughtful, not mad. She reaches for his hand, tangles their fingers together, tugs them both to sit on the bed, still fully clothed. “He was always - hungry for them, right after he came back, hoarding every moment. It bothered me a little back then, especially before we had Junior - Lisa was all I had in the world, most of the time, and then it felt like I had to lose her to have him back. Not really, but - when you’re young and tired and petty and lonely, and all your carefully established patterns for dealing with a toddler are being upended - things feel exaggerated.” She leans her head on his shoulder.

“But not now?”

“Not for a long time. It’s just part of him. I love that he’s such a good father. I love that he focuses on things he cares about with his whole self. And suddenly I realized, a few years ago - a few years for me, I mean - that it was nice, having a little time to myself, after a long streak of not much of that. I can always go say goodnight with him, if I start to miss that particular ritual, but - well. I think he gets to be a little selfish about it now, all things considered.”

Matt turns his head to press his nose into the crown of her hair, breathes in deep; she’s woodsmoke and faint sweetness, just like always. There’s layers of it in the room, mixed with Frank, on the neatly-made bed, padded into the carpet, faint and hazy and resonant, like harmonics blending in a major chord, overtones and undertones. Sex, yes, but also just living, sleeping, reading, stealing lazy mornings kisses.

“There’s so much love in this house,” Matt says, entirely by accident, because it feels palpable here, like he could drown in it.

“We wouldn’t have it without you,” she points out, snakes an arm around his waist and squeezes lightly. Matt could say the house isn’t really the important part, but - he doesn’t.

“He’s on his way,” Matt whispers when it’s true, isn’t sure why he’s whispering. “Want to make out like teenagers?”

She scoots into his lap, sidesaddle with both her knees going off to one side, and Matt meant it ironically, he swears he did, playful self-aware teasing, but then they’re in freefall. They’re gasping into each other’s mouths, and sloppy and deep and quick, rocking a little with each renewed press towards each other. The soft cups of her bra are rubbing against him through their shirts, and Matt doesn’t know where to put his hands, one of them splays in the rolling dip of her lower back, rucks up her blouse a little, the other one hovering near her - side? Maybe? Maria gets her arms around his neck, clutches at his hair in both hands, and Matt whines high and sharp until she swallows the sound, breaks off a moment later with a “Shhh, shhhh-” and Matt kisses her again.

The door knob clicks open and Matt smirks when he hears Frank’s breath catch, and Maria’s tongue flickers against the curve of his grin; she tugs his hair a little harder until he opens for her again. Frank closes the door and leans back against it, just watching them.

Matt finally wraps his other hand around - not exactly her ass, but high on the outside of her thigh, tugs her closer against him, and Frank’s heartbeat spikes again.

Maria wriggles a little, hums, then bites Matt’s lip sharply, and - she is definitely close enough to feel him twitch. “You can smirk again when you’ve gotten my bra off,” she informs him brightly, because apparently if ‘torment Frank’ is a contest, Matt needs to know he’s going to lose hard. “And not a moment before.”

God,” Frank mutters, quietly enough under his breath that he might not even realize he said it, and grinds the heel of his palm against his fly.

Elektra trained him well, once upon a time, so Matt can unhook it one-handed. It takes him fifteen seconds when it used to take ten; he’s out of practice. He skates his fingernails lightly up her arms, under her sleeves, tugs one strap down and then the other. Maria cooperates with that much, sighs happily when Matt finally tugs it away, kisses him wetter and slower, the edges of her all slightly relaxed, breasts soft and full against his chest.

Matt smirks, and she laughs, drops another kiss on the corner of his mouth, finally letting go of his hair. Matt makes a slightly disappointed noise until she reaches for one of his hands with hers, guides it under her shirt. Matt massages obligingly, makes sure to tilt them so Frank can see the ripple of the fabric over his knuckles.

“Frank,” she murmurs, “I think your boy is a showoff.”

“Most of the city could have told you that,” he rumbles, voice dry, and she bites her own lip to muffle the laughter that bubbles up, making her body shake under Matt’s hands, and oh, she feels so lovely, so different from Frank, yielding and gently curved and so hot everywhere they’re touching, and Matt can’t help a loud, hungry moan.

“...you know, dear,” Maria adds thoughtfully, in the ensuing lull, “I think we may need to train him to be quiet.”

“Ahn-” Matt starts, because how else is he supposed to respond to that, and then sucks gratefully when Frank closes the distance in two quick strides and pushes his fingers against Matt’s mouth to stop him doing it again.

“Tonight?” Frank asks, fingers moving in and out of Matt’s mouth absently, “We could just keep his mouth full,” and Matt shudders, squeezes carefully where his hand is still cupping Maria’s breast, sucks messily at Frank’s fingers, both trying to convey his approval without sound, and also just trying to find a way to survive this, this thing that’s happening, where they’re discussing him like he gets no say at all, and all that matters is how they’re going to get him to be good -

“You spoil him,” Maria accuses, nails digging in lightly when she grips the back of Matt’s neck, braces herself to lean forward a little more into his touch, and Matt whines, low and desperate in the back of his throat despite himself.

“When you’re right, you’re right,” Frank admits, and Matt is - doomed, honestly.

“Should we tie him up?” Maria asks as Frank takes his hand back, and Frank hums thoughtfully. “We’ve done that,” he murmurs, and Matt feels the heat in his voice like someone rubbed velvet on his skin because he knows what Frank is remembering, stricter and more elaborate scenes when they were first starting out, and Matt was a lot worse about trying to goad Frank into hurting him more than he was ready for. They’re. Pretty good memories. But -

“Please let me touch you,” Matt begs, low and defenseless, “Please, I’ll learn, I’ll behave -”

“Hmmm,” Maria considers, plucking open a few of his shirt buttons. “I think I’m going to make you prove that first,” she declares, and then, “Hands behind your back.”

He whimpers, quietly, but does it, and she makes quick work of the rest of the buttons, croons, “Oh, look at you,” as she slides her hands over his shoulders, pushing the shirt away to bunch along his arms.

Matt does his best charming smile.

“Tangle that,” she tells Frank, who promptly starts wrapping the slack of Matt’s inside-out shirt in light loops around his wrists.

“It won’t hold him if he struggles,” Frank points out.

“Weren’t you listening?” she murmurs, trailing her nails lightly over Matt’s bare chest, making his breath hitch and skitter. “He’s going to behave. Isn’t that right?”

“Yes ma’am,” Matt answers, and she rewards him with another slow kiss. Then she wriggles off his lap, standing in front of the bed and tugging him to his feet by his belt loops. Frank smacks his ass as it comes off the bed, and Matt concentrates on breathing through his nose, not meditating exactly, but - he can control himself. Eight in, eight out. Maria tugs his belt off, unzips his pants, and steps in close to kiss him again, one hand on his shoulder and the other sliding down to cup him through his boxers.

Matt keeps losing his count.

But he doesn’t shout, and doesn’t squeak, keeps his shoulders down and his wrists crossed in their makeshift bonds. He leans down and opens into the kiss, and keeps himself from bucking into her hand, only nudges with his hips, hopeful, the kinetic equivalent of puppy dog eyes.

She rubs lazily, slow and content, like she’s enjoying him or the silk or both, dragging the growing damp patch so it slides against his skin and he can’t help it, keening softly into her mouth, choking when she immediately steps away, tries to follow her, but Frank is still holding his arms where they’re wrapped in his shirt, a soft tug in his trapezius muscles transmuting into a merciless reminder of his position.

“Oh my god,” Matt breathes when he realizes. “This is so mean.” His head is swimming a little.

“It’s going to get worse before it gets better,” Maria tells him sweetly, like butter wouldn’t melt. “That’s how you learn.”

“I think I need some positive reinforcement,” Matt wheedles, and does his best to look cute, taking deeper breathes so his chest heaves a bit, ducking his head so his hair falls in his face. She likes it, he can smell how much she likes it, especially now that her legs aren’t pressed together to fit in his lap, and it makes his mouth water.

“And what do you think that should be?” she asks indulgently.

“Please let me eat you out,” Matt says, immediately, and Frank makes a strangled noise behind him. But he makes it quietly, the bastard, and then bites down on the juncture of Matt’s neck and shoulder, either as a reward for the image or just to ground himself, Matt can’t tell. It’s deep rather than sharp, the kind that’ll slow-bruise, and Matt savors the feeling, lets it roll across his face.

Please, ma’am, please let me taste you, I’ll make it so good-”

“I suppose, if you’d find it that motivating,” Maria allows, although Matt can hear the shape of her smile, the rustle as she finally peels her shirt off and drops it to the floor, then shimmies out of her skirt. "Frank, get the rest of his clothes off, would you?”

“Yes, dear,” he answers, stands next to Matt and pulls Matt’s pants and underwear down far enough that he can step out of them easily. Maria is bustling, pulling away the quilt and laying down something else - synthetic fiber, he’s pretty sure, but it’s been washed recently, so all he can smell is their detergent, an innocuous household constant.

She rearranges the pillows against the headboard, then settles herself there, and Frank presses against Matt’s back - still fully dressed, even though he’s hard enough that it must be hurting - and rumbles in Matt’s ear, “You should probably crawl to her now,” and Matt has to bite his lip to stop himself moaning again.

He kneels on the bed - on the fleece she just added, soft and warm and functionally waterproof - and shuffles awkwardly forward, hands still held dutifully behind him, even though his bindings have gotten a little ragged. He manages to get an edge of the fabric in one hand and balls it up a little, pulling the whole thing tighter.

Frank gets a grip on the edge of the blanket so Matt doesn’t drag it too far out out place, gulping in quick breaths of air suddenly soaking in Maria’s scent. When he’s close, she stops him with a foot against his shoulder.

“You’ve figured out how this is going, right?” she asks. “Smart boy like you.” Matt nods rapidly. She’s so close, her legs are wide open now, he can taste her on the air and he’s aching.

“I have to be quiet,” Matt recites. Promptly. Quietly. “Or we have to stop.”

“Or you have to stop,” she corrects. “Frank, stop skulking and get over here.”

“I’m not skulking,” Frank protests in the most innocent voice Matt has ever heard out of him. “I’m appreciating.”

“You can appreciate from melee range,” she tells him tartly, obviously holding in a laugh.

“Yes, ma’am,” he returns, just as warmly, and Matt can hear him stripping briskly down as Maria lifts her foot high enough hook her leg over his shoulder, and gets a hand in Matt’s hair to help guide him down. It takes a little wriggling, since he doesn’t have a good way to prop himself up, but even that makes something warm curl in his gut, like a swallow of good whiskey, know he’s laid out - literally prostrate - for her, dick trapped between the damp skin of his own stomach and the downy heat-trap of the fleece, smearing precome, helpless even to break his own fall.

In spite of all the warning it is - an effort not to moan as soon as he gets his mouth on her. She’s already slick, and the rich taste is so much compared to the scent, overwhelming everything else. She’s even hotter here, and it feels like a secret, because even if you could guess, who would dare to speculate about something so intimate, and he knows. He gets to know.

The mattress complains as Frank climbs onto the bed beside them. He runs a hand down Matt’s back, over his ass, down the backs of his thighs, just stroking, sometimes kneading, his callouses so familiar that it’s an instantly soothing kind of touch, like white noise for his skin. Matt feels himself go loose underneath it, and gets to work.

Little wet kisses at first, over her clit and then opening his mouth wider, tasting more of her, tongue shifting from quick flickers to long strokes, and when he can’t resist, pressing straight inside. She’s sighing, breathing harder and faster to match his pace, but she doesn’t make any other noises, indicates the extent of her approval via her hand tugging his hair, pressing him harder against her, and her calf tensing uselessly against his shoulder blade. Her labia are so soft against his lips, and he wants to lick though every fold, every crevice.

He sucks at her clit again when she tilts her hips and holds him there, tongue flicking over and around it, listening for her faint gasps - and is not prepared, at all, for the hairbrush Frank drags over the skin of his left cheek, bristles down, like a hundred wartenberg wheels at once. Matt twitches, mouth gone slack, knocks his face against Maria’s thigh, and then kisses the spot in apology, but manages, barely, not to whine.

Maria gets to make noise, a low resonant chuckle, and scratches her nails lightly over his scalp. “You’re doing so well,” she tells him, and Matt huffs and jerks against the fleece. “Carry on.” He nuzzles a little at her mound, the slightly-coarser hair there, bumps her clit with the tip of his nose on his way back down. Frank drags the brush over the same stripe of skin, again and again, and it doesn’t - quite - hurt any individual time, but his skin thinks it does, and the rasp builds and builds, a different kind of irritation, hot and tingling as the repeated scratches bring up blood under the surface without ever hitting him. He feels torn, the foci of taste and touch each repeatedly swamping his concentration, temporarily overriding the other, and then he slips the other way again, never quite able to get used to either one, lost between them.

Maria is rolling her hips now, bigger motions, deeper panting, and Matt’s sure she’s close, his face is drenched, and he’s ravenous for it, wants to feel the little quivers on his tongue - when Frank leans over him and bites the tender spot on his ass, and Matt muffles a shout in Maria’s body for all of half a second before she’s hauling him back by his hair, and the sting is amazing but it’s not what he wants-

“That’s cheating, that’s cheating,” Matt hisses, as Maria struggles to get her breath back.

“No rules,” Frank points out, and nips Matt’s ass again, because he’s a bastard.

Matt whimpers, lets himself hang in Maria’s grip. “How long do I have to wait?”

“Hmmm.” She shuffles a little, hitching herself more upright so she can let him go, takes her right leg down from his shoulder and swings the other over his head, so he isn’t between them anymore. “At least until I come, I think,” she decides, and nudges his shoulder. “Roll over on your back.”

So he can’t even rub against the bed, which - it is supposed to be a punishment, but he still wants to groan, to whine, to make his disappointment abundantly clear. But that’s more noise and he isn’t supposed to - and - he swallows them all down and obeys, has to arch a little awkwardly to get over his own elbow, but then he’s flat on his back with his hands trapped beneath him, panting at the ceiling, and - taking it, accepting in it a way that feels clean and new. He’s taken so much pain, both endured and enjoyed, but this is - it’s just different.

He can hear - god, they’re so easy with each other, and Matt wonders if it’s what happens, after ten years of marriage, or if it’s just them. Frank is kissing her, hitching her legs around him, sliding in fast and smooth. Maria hisses, soaked but not streched, arching into it, shoving his head down as she tosses hers back. He sucks on her throat, kisses down to her breasts, hips moving in a sharp steady rhythm, and Matt twitches with the same pace, their shifting weight on the mattress conveying every thrust. Someone’s hand is slick and practically spasming between them, almost certainly on her clit, but they’re too tangled together for Matt to be sure of whose.

Matt smells little flecks of blood, her nails raking down his back, his hips stuttering, then ratcheting faster. Frank can’t seem to stop kissing her, anywhere, everywhere, and she can’t stop touching him, pulling him closer. Matt lets it wash over him, the way they know each other, the way they crave each other, wordless and fervent and beacon-bright in every sense he has.

He wants, all the way down to his toes, but somehow there’s no urgency to it; he’s floating, he’s waiting, he’s theirs for the taking, and he doesn’t have to worry about anything else. He doesn’t have to worry about anything at all.

Maria comes without any sound at all; if it weren't for her frantic breath suddenly slowing down again, the ripples when she relaxes her legs from around Frank’s waist and lets one of her feet fall back onto the mattress, Matt might not have even been able to pinpoint the moment the moment at all. Frank slows gradually, doesn’t quite stop, just rocks shallowly inside her, still stealing quick gentle kisses, along her jaw, on her eyelids.

“Now who’s the show-off?” Matt asks, voice a little rougher than he planned it, but he thinks it’s a fair cop. And Maria does that low, throaty laugh again, like he hoped, and he feels a rush of warmth down his front.

“It’s important to set a good example,” she says, languorous and smug, like a purring cat. “Think we should give him another chance now?” she asks Frank, playfully, and then rocks up into him, making his forehead drop onto her shoulder as he pants. “Or should we make him wait on you, too?”

“You should sit on his face right now,” Frank says, very seriously, and it’s all Matt can do to grit his teeth and pump his hips uselessly and not moan. Frank kisses Maria one more time on the mouth, quick and sweet. “If you’re asking what I want.”

“How can I say no to that? Alright, off -” she smacks his thigh briskly as he pulls out, carefully extricating them, letting her climb over towards Matt. “How are you holding up, sweetheart?” she murmurs, stroking his hair gently.

“Good,” Matt says hoarsely, knows he’s doing his dumbest smile, and doesn’t care. “Please,” and then she’s straddling him, surrounding him, and he can smell Frank’s sweat mingled with hers, and - oh, his precome inside her, just a taste, just a trace, and Matt half-wishes they had made him wait longer. The weight of her is another revelation, bearing down as she uses his mouth, rides him, and the knowledge of it sends sparks tripping up and down his spine.

Frank is settling between Matt’s legs, pushing them up to his shoulders, and Matt gets it now, he does, even though Frank supposedly spoils him, right now Maria is the judge and Frank is the fucking prosecutor, who’s going to contest every second of silence, who’s going to trip Matt up if he can, who’s going to make sure he earns this. Matt breathes carefully through his nose, tongue working, drunk on the smell and the taste of her, but he tries to brace himself, so whatever Frank has planned doesn’t take him completely by surprise.

It’s a good thing he does, too, because with the way Frank is tilting him, hips up, hole exposed, Matt suspects he’s getting fingered, maybe fucked soon, and he is not at all prepared for Frank to swat him right where his balls are nestled under his aching dick.

He gulps and strains and inhales as deeply as he can, buried in Maria’s cunt, and doesn’t cry out, doesn’t, doesn’t. Frank cups him, rolls Matt’s sack contemplatively in some kind of perverse congratulations, then squeezes, then tugs. Matt can feel tears pricking under his lashes, he feels so indulged - nourished - and tormented at once, but who could tell, he’s a mess, and he keeps every sound locked in his throat. Then Frank’s big, gorgeous hands are gripping his ass after all, spreading him, shifting closer until his cock nestles between Matt’s cheeks. Frank doesn’t press inside him, just slides up and down over his hole, still slick from fucking Maria, and and Matt’s brain kind of - whites out - just for a second. He was inside her, where Matt’s mouth is right now, and now they’re pinning him, folding him in, cornering him from both ends, and he’s part of it, how the evidence is on them, taste and touch, and now it’s smeared messily all over him.

Matt rolls his hips into it, clenches his cheeks, encourages Frank with every silent message he can think of. Frank goes a little faster, settles into a steady rhythm, a seething, teasing pace matched to Maria grinding down into his mouth. The head of Frank’s dick bumps against sack every few thrusts, and Frank wraps a hand around Matt’s cock, strokes when Matt was expecting a squeeze, works him sweetly and then meanly, little hints of his nails but never long enough to get used to, while Matt has zero leverage to arch into either Frank’s fist or his dick, so that he just has to take it.

Frank leans forward a little more, curls Matt’s body a little tighter so he can kiss his way up her spine, press his face in her hair when she leans back, suck the hammering pulse in her neck. Maria’s cresting again, her core shaking and her knuckles clenched on the headboard for balance. Matt is drowning in the best way, his senses crushed down into nothing but his body, manifold and concentrated and heady, like cordial, like chartreuse, like absinthe. Just as Maria’s body is finally, finally spasming over him, vibrations shivering in a rush through his tongue, his tingling sensitized lips, his sore jaw, Frank pinches the head of his cock. The zing of pain ruins any hint of Matt’s coherency again, makes him try to thrash but he can’t, keening helplessly.

Maria eases off him, still twitching minutely with aftershocks, and Matt gulps down air, feeling a sudden rush of cold on his wet face without her there. Maria stretches out next to them while Frank unhooks Matt’s legs from his shoulders, and Matt feels the prickle of her gaze everywhere, like rolling in velvet. “Frank,” he whispers, without meaning to, but his voice has mostly deserted him, “Frank - Maria - please,” and he isn’t even sure what he needs, but she cuddles up to his side even while Frank moves away, snakes an arm across his chest to pluck at one of his nipples. “Go on,” she says, and “It was just a little noise,” Matt pleads, “Quieter than talking, please, please don’t stop.”

“It’s important to enforce clear standards, Matthew,” Maria tells him, merciless, fingertips wandering to stroke hazy patterns against his stomach. She doesn’t, he realizes abruptly, pay any particular attention to his scars, but - of course she wouldn’t, and that feels nice, in the middle of everything, one more thing that’s unremarkable and remarkable at once, one more way things fit with them. “But it was an improvement,” she muses, and Matt breathes slowly, in and out, awaits judgement. “We’re going to stay like this,” she murmurs, “And I’ll keep touching you, but for anything else you still have to wait.” Matt licks his lips, still covered in the taste of her, and something in him settles again as he accepts it, with a sense of being cradled and swayed, like he imagines a seaside hammock would feel, warm sunshine and cool breeze.

She tosses a leg over Matt’s lazily as Frank settles in behind her, takes her in long, rolling thrusts, and she presses her forehead against Matt’s shoulder, breath puffing onto his skin.

“Until you come again?” Matt asks, just - confirming.

“Mmm. Either of us,” she says, “Might take me a little while,” and, “Oh,” Matt breathes, chest going hot and tight just at the thought, “I want that, I want - to taste him in you, to feel it, both of you,” and he doesn’t say please because he isn’t begging, because - it’s an offering, to hold up his raw hungry heart, to punish or reward, to dispose of as she wishes. Just the fact of it, the gift of the unvarnished and unguarded truth, I want that.

Matt,” Frank says, fucks her harder, and her nails dig into Matt’s hip, and Matt can hear how close he is, the way his breathing always suddenly gets regimentally level as he tries to hold onto the last pieces of his control, a familiar song.

“Yeah, come on, just like that,” Maria coaxes, demands, for herself or for Matt or both. He clings to her through the tremors, then goes completely still, muscles tensing as he holds her tight. He slumps for a few moments, nose tucked into her neck, then gingerly rolls away, gives her space to move. She starts to clamber around Matt’s shoulders again, but one of his arms is asleep and twinges hard.

“Nngh, arm cramp, I need -” and then Frank is coming around on Matt’s other side, lifting him with one hand in the small of his back and the other between his shoulder blades, turning him over into Maria’s arms as he untangles Matt’s shirt and finally unfastens the bottlenecks of his cuffs, stretches his arms carefully, works the knots in his muscles while Matt whimpers uncontrollably. Maria tucks Matt against her, stroking his hair. His still slightly tacky face nestles right in her cleavage, and he nuzzles shamelessly, because it’s a really nice distraction.

“Do you still want -?” she begins when Matt’s arms are wrung out and noodley but no longer full of pins. “Yeah,” he breathes, shuffles down her body under his own power this time. He nuzzles between her legs and she opens for him, leisurely and intuitive, reflexive, welcoming. He gets his hands on her thighs this time, holds her, presses his tongue deep for long, slow licks, less focused on getting her off and just luxuriating in the taste, rich salty-savory mixed with the musky bitter notes of Frank’s come. Frank settles, somewhere behind him, breathing gradually turning into something a little heavier than peace as he watches, the deliberate quiet-deep breaths of awe. Then he’s reaching under Matt and jerking him again, less taunting but just as insidious. When Maria’s jerky little motions start up again, sweetly needy, Matt pulls back for a second, licks his lips. “You could pull my hair again,” he offers, because Frank still hasn’t hurt him yet this round.

“I could do that while you fuck me,” she counter-offers, and Frank makes the particular pained noise that means his cock definitely tried to get hard again but was not at all sufficiently recovered.

“Yeah?” Matt says, where he meant yeah but it comes out a little bit like really?, and she drags him up as promised. There’s a slow-motion flurry of logistical reshuffling, absent the avid energy they had when they started, and Matt ends up mostly in Frank’s lap, resting against his chest, an arm slung low around his abdomen, and Maria drapes over him, adjusts the angle for a moment, then sinks onto his cock, hot and slick and close and perfect. They sigh at the same time, Matt rocking up into her, and she yanks his head back far enough for Frank to nibble and worry and nip at his earlobe, a constant shift of suction and sharpness. Matt tries to reach for her clit but she bats him away, mumbles, “Nnh, no, m’sore, just do what you’re doing -” so Matt does, thrusts a little faster, runs his hand over the curve of her ass instead. She kisses him softly, then loses the thread of it as she trembles, gasping open-mouthed against his mouth, and Matt rocks harder, and then both of them are shuddering and flying and coming apart at all their little seams, and Matt holds his breath through the hurtling exhilarating convulsion of it, and doesn’t make any sound at all.

***

Matt doesn’t know what wakes him up. It could have been anything in a several-house wide radius; far enough that he can’t catch any echoes now. He doesn't know how many hours it's been since their cursory clean-up, Maria rinsing off while Frank balled the fleece up in the hamper. Now Matt is clinging to Maria - like a cat migrating to the warmest spot - his face tucked into the softness of her stomach, rocked slowly by her breathing. He can feel the faint ripples of stretch marks under his cheek, like a note dashed off long ago in some cramped angelic script, at the crux of the aesculapian and the cartographic, life was kindled here. Heartbeats, close and far, the lingering smell of sex, the susurrus of skin on skin, slow caressing. Frank’s hand, from the callouses; Maria’s arm, from the fineness of her body hair, each affecting the timbre of the tiny sound. They’re both awake, too.

“Shhh,” Frank whispers. “It’s okay. We’re all safe.”

There’s salt in the air - of course there is, but Matt realizes suddenly not all of it is from sex or sweat. The bed shifts, blankets rumple - Frank scooting closer, pressing along her other side, legs knocking together. He wraps an arm around her rib cage, just under her breasts; he accidentally brushes Matt’s hair. Frank kisses her shoulder, cradles her close.

Frank’s heartbeat is faster than Maria’s is, despite his ridiculous resting rate; whatever made her cry, Matt thinks, it wasn’t fear.

“Do you want to go check on the children?” he whispers.

“I keep telling you, it’s not the park,” she says quickly, too quickly, like she’s trying to outrun herself, get the words out before they crack, aggravated at having to say it again.

“But you won’t tell me what it is,” he says, slower, solemn. Trying to accept it, trying for resignation, just falling short.

Matt shouldn’t be listening to this, but he can’t move. He keeps his breathing slow. After five breaths, Maria slides her free hand gingerly into his hair. Just for something to touch, Matt thinks. Self-soothing.

“I dream about light,” she says, and her voice quavers, the tiniest carillon bell. “But it’s dark, too, it’s - like midnight mass, on Christmas, with all the lights out and everyone with candles - and I’m singing, and it doesn’t matter that I can’t sing, because everyone is, and the sound is one living thing, in the rafters and the floorboards and my bones.” Her heart is racing, now, but Matt doesn’t think any of it is a lie. It’s the fear of an oncoming train, the tension of having begun, and not saying the part that scares her yet.

“You remember heaven,” Frank whispers, very slowly. “Do you ever wish- ”

“No.” Low and quick as a gutpunch.

“Okay,” he says, and it sounds like I’m sorry. “Okay.”

“I don’t,” she insists. “I don’t remember. I think you need. A body, a physical brain. To make memories,” she says, and the skin-on-skin sound starts up again, smaller now, just his thumb stroking whatever patch of her is closest.

“It’s just - just the feeling, sometimes, when I’m asleep. And - I turn around and you’re not there, Frank, I can’t find you - and I try, but I can’t get through, and no one can hear me, everyone is singing and shining, and I keep singing and-”

She breaks off, breath tight in her chest, blinking hard against new tears.

“Maria,” he whispers, and she makes a tiny, crushed-mouse noise, her hand going tight in Matt’s hair for a second before she must remember, makes herself relax.

“They couldn’t make me not miss you,” she tells him, shaky and relentless at the same time. “If that’s what it is. Not God could make me not miss you, not without making me not me.”

“I’m here,” he swears, a promise and a plea at once, his arm tightening around her, “I’m right here -” and then they’re kissing, little hurt noises between presses, like it’s the only thing that can console them, and the pain momentarily resumes between each one until the strain finally simmers away.

Soulmates, Matt thinks dimly, clenching and flexing his hands under the sheets. So that’s what it means.

***

Matt tells himself he’s not going to get weird about it.

He can - fuck them? Date them? Go to dinner after work and kiss them in the hallways and be their boy, and not say anything when Lisa lies about what she’s doing when she’s really learning chokeholds and arm wrenches and spin kicks, and buy a packet of over-citrused chemically scented crayons so he can draw with Frank Junior and not realize until a week later that Maria’s putting both of their pictures on the fridge, but he’s not going to be weird about it.

He’s not going to sleep over if they aren’t fooling around. He’s not going to give them pet names. He’s not going to forget that they’re married and he’s - fun.

He does have a lot of fun. He stays over more often than he plans to, because all it takes is Frank catching him around the waist or Maria grabbing his tie and saying “I’m giving you a very seductive look right now,” even though he can tell she’s actually still facing a magazine and doing nothing of the sort.

They do keep his mouth full on other nights, with someone’s fingers or Frank’s cock or Maria’s panties or, eventually, an actual proper gag, for which Matt is pathetically grateful; sometimes he needs a moment to scream.

He goes to work with their marks under his suits. He goes to their bed with inkspots from the perpetually-dying printer on his fingertips and blood washed from his raw knuckles, skin mottled with bruises from boots, crow bars, lucky bullets. He keeps expecting something - warnings, entreaties, sad sighs, something, but neither of them says a word.

Frank traces them, sometimes, silently, and once he ties Matt down and kisses him for what feels like hours. Maria acts like she doesn’t notice them at all, but she somehow gets fresh berries from South America during the middle of December after he took a particularly nasty, thug-assisted slip on ice, feeds them to him one by one while Frank works him open. And in the morning he buttons his jacket, and they let him go.

He asks Maria once, with no context, if she has any regrets, and she doesn’t lie when she says no.

“Do you?” she asks, and Matt doesn’t say anything. It’s not that he doesn’t; it’s just that he can never figure out in the moment exactly what they are.

Emptiness doesn’t know its own shape, Stick told him once. It was supposed to be about awareness, the way sighted people only ever notice boundaries, obstacles, the possibilities of negative space. It was a thing they could know, from the outside, the better to kick everyone’s asses.

But Matt feels like maybe it was about him, after all. He knows exactly why he’s happy, and nothing at all about what he’s afraid of.

***

No, Matt thinks. He was definitely deluding himself about that. He’s done this dance before, and he knew exactly what he was afraid of.

Frank catches Lisa practicing throat punches and nerve strikes in her room. They might have gotten away with it, if she was sloppy, but her form is perfect; of course Frank recognizes his style.

He marches her down to the living room where Matt is serving as an audience for Junior’s elaborate make-believe game-slash-educational-demonstration about the lives of space pirate super-spies. Frank doesn't yell, doesn’t grip Lisa’s arm or sweep things off the table. He just goes cold, the terrible fathomless anger that Matt’s never really had directed at him. “This will stop,” he says, implacable, expressionless, and “I forbid it.”

Frank doesn’t scream, but Lisa does, “You can’t stop me,” and “You can’t tell me what to do, you’re a murderer,” runs back to her room and slams the door, leaving both of them frozen, and only Junior scrambling after her, totally diverted, his little face creased with worry.

Maria emerges from her study, confused, drawn to the noise, “What is going on?”

Matt,” Frank growls, “Is teaching our daughter to be a vigilante.”

“Oh no,” Maria says, in a sinking tone, pressing her fingertips to her forehead, and that’s almost worse than the anger, the way she just sounds - crestfallen, distressed but not really surprised, like she’s kicking herself for not seeing this coming.

“That isn’t-” Matt starts, stupidly.

“You promised me,” Frank hisses, poisonous and bitter, contempt strained through his teeth. “You promised you’d help protect her and you’re dragging her into that world -”

“She dragged me!” Matt yells, even though he knows it doesn’t make sense as a response, knows it’ll only make things worse, but he didn’t - he never wanted -

“What did she do, Matt?”

“Don’t make this about -”

“She said if I wouldn’t teach her she’d find someone else,” Matt says as fast as he can push the words out without tripping over himself. “And she didn’t mean at the Y, she was going to use your name and god only knows who’d answer -”

“She is nine years old, you couldn’t stop her -”

“Of course he couldn’t, she’s exactly like you!” Maria shouts over him, and they all go still.

“That’s a terrible thing to say,” Frank says after a beat, low and guarded. His shoulders have come up a little, defensive, his stance set and intractable, like he might need to withstand an incoming blow.

“Not really,” Maria says, pinched, but then she gives it to him, fast and vicious. “Try this one: if you hadn’t been away so much, maybe you’d already know what she’s like.”

Frank flinches.

Matt flinches too. This is - this is so much worse than he thought, he knew they’d be furious with him but they’re hurting each other, and it’s his fault, he knew better, he knows better than to keep secrets like this but he always does anyway, always ruins things, and the least he can do is not ruin them along with him.

“I should have told you,” he starts, tries to redirect their anger where it belongs.

“You damn well should have,” Maria snaps, but it’s just frustrated, not cruel. “But that still wouldn’t address the actual problem.”

“The problem where she’s like me,” Frank says, and he’s - not baiting her, exactly, and not conceding either, not even a little. He’s walking wounded with blood in his teeth, but he’s planning to fight it every inch, only stepping back to draw her out. Matt’s seen him do it a hundred times.

She takes the opening.

“The problem where Lisa is an insanely stubborn, self-reliant child with no sense of perspective and no restraint, set on physically destroying anyone who scares her, and you’re apparently too hypocritical to handle it even a tiny bit without flying off the handle? Yes, Frank, that problem.

She folds her arms, immovable.

“Jesus, Maria,” he murmurs.

“That’s not an answer,” she tells him, tight and clipped. He turns toward her, steps into her space and Matt - he doesn’t believe it could happen, but he’s scared, for a hanging fragment of a second, not sure if he should be getting between them - but Frank is running his hands down the outside of Maria’s arms, head bowed, soothing and supplicating at once.

“I’d forgotten,” he says softly, a private confession, and Matt can’t hear any anger in it at all. He sounds - wistful, maybe. Rueful. Or besotted. “How brutal you were.”

Are,” Maria says, arch and gentling at the same time. He tips his forehead and rests it against hers.

“I’m sorry. You’re right, I’m sorry.”

“I’m sorry too,” she murmurs, a much smaller voice than moments ago, her arms finally to her sides again; he takes her hands, and she squeezes his fingers lightly. “That thing about being away - that was out of line, we made those decisions together, I know that. And you’re great with her.”

“Usually. She’s pretty mad at me right now,” Frank points out. “If she really thinks -”

“....I heard some of that,” Maria admits dryly. “She’ll come around, Frank. She thinks you hung the sun in the sky, she was just saying anything.”

“Any weapon to hand?” Frank muses, bluntly self-deprecating.

“You should have heard the things she threw at me when I wouldn’t let her get her ears pierced in kindergarten.”

Frank laughs, weakly.

“It’s hard to - think of her like that. My baby girl.”

“I know. But she’s always been - headstrong. Less with you, because she adores you so much, but it was there. And she’s not going to be nine forever.”

“Not anymore,” Frank says, the words sticking in his throat, a little crushed, a little amazed.

“Oh, god, I didn’t even think -”

“It’s okay,” he says quickly, and she lets go of his hands, steps in closer to wrap her arms around his shoulders.

“She’s just learning, Frank. Is that so bad?”

“For now,” Frank says dubiously. “If she’s anything like me -”

Which is when Frank Junior leans through the doorway, feet shuffling nervously.

“Mom? Lisa climbed out her window.”

What -

When -

“I dunno!” He shrinks a little, and Matt - Matt wasn’t listening, how could he have let himself be so distracted but it’s too late.

“Her heart’s out of range,” he says, and he can hear Frank’s voice all over again, you promised me.

“If she’s trying not to be tracked, she’ll head for the subway,” Frank says, and then he’s running, out the door. The stop is four blocks away, so depending on when she left -

Go,” Maria says, and Matt realizes he’s frozen.

“I-”

“If she makes it to a train, you’ve got the best chance of finding her fast,” Maria says, low and fast and ruthlessly practical. “I’ll stay in case she comes back. Go.”

***

They don’t catch her en route to the subway.

***

They split up.

Matt can go faster on rooftops.

(And. “You don’t want to see what I’m going to do.” Matt doesn’t. And this time, he doesn’t know if he wants to stop it, either. “She could be fine,” he tries. Frank doesn’t answer.)

***

He checks the closest stops; he checks the closest stations where she might have switched lines. The noise is strident as ever; the smells are a dismal quagmire. He jumps at ten different children’s heartbeats. He can smell garbage smoke, cigarette smoke, exhaust, but never clean smoke; a scatter of floral perfumes, but no dogwoods. He checks Central Park, most of the craters now filled in with sod, just in case she felt drawn there - nothing.

He’s been moving for hours, and it’s well past dark. Did she go home? Is she sleeping on a bench somewhere? She’s not a stupid kid, or a helpless one, but if someone was looking for her, if someone was waiting -

It feels like the worst kind of failure to consider a grid search, the raw admission that he has no ideas but brute force. But if that’s what it takes - he has to find her. He has to.

He passes near his apartment, considers that he might, possibly, want to zip in and grab the suit - there’s a heartbeat in his apartment.

A small one.

***

She’s sitting on the couch with her knees pulled up to her chest, arms wrapped around them. She’s not crying, but she was, at least briefly, tiny smeared salt-tracks on her face and hands.

Matt lets himself in the front door. She must have picked the lock.

“Are you and mom and dad gonna break up?” she asks in a small voice. Afraid, Matt thinks, but too sullen to admit it.

He opens his mouth to say no, but - he doesn’t actually know, does he? You promised me.

Go.

Let alone whatever Frank is doing now, or what it’ll do to him.

She’s just like him. Except also a scared nine year old girl. With Frank, you have to let him run himself of a cliff a little bit, or a lot, before you can get him even think about changing course. Possibly, check. And you still have to stand your ground.

He walks until he’s in front of her, folds his arms, and feels like a ridiculous parody of an adult, but.

“If I said yes, would you be sorry for getting me in trouble?”

“Why should I be sorry because he’s being unfair?” she bursts out.

“You threatened to put yourself at risk, on purpose. You basically took yourself hostage to force me to do what you wanted. Was that fair?”

She grits her teeth and doesn’t say anything. Castle classic.

Matt sighs and sits down next to her.

“He was scared for you, and mad at me. He overreacted. Did you think - what? You could run away and never talk to him again, and that would solve the problem?”

“I could prove it. That he couldn’t stop me,” she says, mulishly, setting her jaw.

“Well, you did that,” Matt points out dryly. “We’ve been out of our minds for hours, you know. Definitely not in control of the situation. Point made.” He lets that linger for a couple of seconds. “So, is this what you wanted?”

“You know it’s not!”

“Well, then? What do you want?”

“I just want him to understand!”

“Then maybe, instead of hiding here, you should talk to him?” Matt suggests, as gently as he can. “Your mom got him to stop freaking out so much. He’ll listen.”

She sniffs, then swallows, then says in a small voice, “Okay.”

Matt equivocates for a moment, then leans over, and hugs her gently around the shoulders. She tightens up for a second, then leans into it.

“You’re a really good student. If you work it out with your mom and dad, I’d be. Proud, to keep teaching you.”

“Even though I got you in trouble?”

“Yeah, kid. I forgive you. Now go call your mom and tell her you’re alive, okay?”

***

Matt calls Frank.

“I found her. She’s fine, she’s safe.”

One breath like it’s been punched out of him. Then, “Where?”

“My place. We’ll wait for you and. Go back together?”

“Okay,” Frank says. “Soon.”

Even in relief, he sounds like the Punisher again.

***

Who did you even kill, Matt wants to shout as he smells the blood before Frank even gets up the stairs. She was here the whole time!

Blood, but no gunpowder. Whatever he did, he did with knives. Or pieces of pipe. Or fists. Or.

“You’re….” Lisa says when Frank opens the door, in full gear. He’s got his coat closed over the skull, at least, Matt can hear the buttons against the leather, but - Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.

“You knew that,” Frank says, not curt, but - Matt thinks of an alley cat. Wary, with his words, with the way he slinks into the room, closes the door, keeps a wall at his back and devours her with his eyes.

“Yeah, but you never - around us.”

Frank isn’t dripping or anything. He’s wiped down enough not to cause a commotion on the sidewalk, not to leave garish incriminating footprints. At close scrutiny, that leaves a lot of leeway. Matt wonders how much of the blood Lisa can see. Frank’s outer layers are dark for a reason.

“I didn’t want to wait to see you.” Raw truth, the kind that transmutes itself into a challenge: here’s the truth of me. What are you going to do with it?

Lisa swallows. They’re - not facing off, exactly. Matt doesn’t think either one of them wants it to be a confrontation. But they both default to it, feet shoulder width apart, backs straight. “Are you scared?” Frank asks.

No,” Lisa says, with the kind of petulant immediacy that means dumb question, takes three quick steps forward, reaches out, then hovers, just short of touching. “I want to see it.”

“Frank-” Matt interrupts, tries to, because this is - this is ridiculous, he needs to hug her, not show off his death logo, but Frank says, “I’ve been pretending I could keep things separate,” quiet and determined and a little resigned, already unfastening the coat. Matt smells another wave of blood, that must be smeared or spattered underneath, and Lisa drops her hand, but doesn’t step back, doesn’t turn away.

“Who were you fighting?”

“There’s a price on your head,” Frank says, very level, very low, and Matt sucks in a breath. Lisa - Lisa doesn’t blink. “Your mom and brother, too. The people who offered the highest one - if someone bad had found you, they’d know first. They knew some of who was looking.”

“Nobody found me but Matt,” Lisa says, awkwardly enough that it’s hard to tell if she’s trying to downplay running off or genuinely comfort him. Maybe both. “...I’m sorry I yelled at you,” she adds, scuffing one sneaker, a little sulky - not like she doesn’t mean it, but like she resents the fact that she does.

“It was true,” he points out.

“Yeah, but.” She can’t seem to say the thing she’s actually sorry for. Matt thinks it might be comical, if it weren’t sad, that she’s so bad at apologizing that she doesn’t know how to say I don’t really hate you for being this.

But maybe Frank hears it anyway; maybe that’s why he needed to let her to see.

“Let’s go home, sweetpea. Okay?”

***

It’s not that Matt doesn’t hear him coming.

It’s New York. There are always people close by, usually people walking in about the same direction. If they don’t have tells - stopping when you stop, the click of a safety coming off - it can be almost impossible to tell a threat from the crowd, even at night, even when ‘the crowd’ is more nebulous idea of public space than physical obstacle. It’s that they’re still awkward enough to be walking a few feet apart, Lisa malingering and making space for herself, and Frank trying to let her, and Matt keeps to Frank’s other side, trying not to get between them or make Lisa feel boxed in. He comes on like a master pickpocket, briskly enough to seem harried and completely unextraordinary in his hurry, self-evidently rude enough to barrel past anyone in his way.

Frank is still turning to glare and track him, fine-tuned to any potential threat, but his assessment is still off, revised two seconds too late as an arm wraps around her neck, a gun shoved under her chin, a “Touch a weapon and she dies,” hissed too fast to preempt the stand-off with a headshot, in an accent that isn’t Russian, but is somewhere in the family.

Slowly, Frank raises his empty hands.

“You don’t want to do this,” he says, and his voice is nothing but leashed doom. “You know you don’t want to do this.”

“You left a real mess at the Broker’s,” the man says. “Not hard to figure out what happened. And here you both are! Do not worry. You do the jobs we give you, girl will be fine.”

It’s past time, Matt decides, to try the helpful/helpless blind guy act, even if he’s a blind guy who left his cane at the Castles' house several hours ago, whose clothes are kind of a mess, and who is for some reason helping the Punisher walk his kid home.

He holds out a hand, half placating, half playing up the blind searching. If he can just trick the guy into letting him get close -

“What’s - sir, please calm down, nobody has to -”

The hammer cocks. “You don’t move either.”

Matt freezes.

“Let me go,” Lisa says in the quiet, and it’s - bizarre, a little perturbing, because she sounds exactly like Frank, the same steady implacable menace, in her high little-girl voice.

“Shut the fuck up, sweetheart-”

And that’s when the screaming starts.

Heat hits Matt’s face, a rush and crackle of combustion and the smell of scorching meat. It’s not Lisa screaming - the gun goes off, then clatters to the ground, but Matt can still hear Lisa thrashing, twisting, scrabbling -

“You want to let me go now?” Lisa snarls, and she’s on fire, she’s on fire, the sound of the blaze shifting from crackling conflagration to the steady low whoosh of a welding torch. She’s grabbed him back, flames crackling over his clothes, and he can’t push at her without burning more. He stumbles desperately, trying to pull away, trips and goes down hard on the concrete, and she pounces on top of him, punches his face - Matt can hear the skin bubble and hiss - then grabs him, two-handed, around his neck as he moans. “You want to let me go NOW?

“Lisa, stop!”

Lisa stops shouting but doesn’t move, hunched on her would-be captor’s chest like a gargoyle, hands still around his throat, still the center of lashing, hissing flames.

Why,” she demands, and all her cold calm has shattered into wild distress.

Lisa,” Frank starts, fervent and haggard, and Matt knows what’s coming, how many times has Frank told him this, told dozens of others - “You don’t want to be me.”

“Yes I do!” Lisa shouts back, and her voice sounds like she should be crying, but no tears could survive the blaze. “I can do it!”

Frank is speechless for a moment, then, sounding broken -

“You don’t have to. Please, baby girl. Just - if you want to fight, you can fight. But death is big, Lisa, you know, I know you do. Don’t let that piece of vermin make that choice for you.”

She takes a shuddery breath, makes a noise like a dry sob, then pulls herself up until she’s standing over the burned wreck of a man, twitching and moaning. Little flickers of fire are still dappled over his clothes, but Lisa is the center, a searing torch. She plants one foot on his chest. She scrapes something off her cheek - bullet fragments - and drops them with a tiny clatter next to his head.

“I am an unbreakable vessel of holy fire,” she hisses, through her teeth, unable to turn away without absolutely establishing her victory.

She takes her foot away, wraps her arms around herself as the fire suddenly all goes out. The man at her feet whimpers again. “Tell all your stupid friends,” she spits, bitter and upset with nothing left to do with it, as she turns away with her shoulders hunched, leaves him in the street.

Frank’s down on one knee as soon as she’s close, arms open, “C’mere,” but she jerks to a halt when she he does, still a step and a half away.

“I’m still hot,” she says, voice very small, wavering. Her shoulders are shaking, too small to see, but Matt can hear the vibrations in the air.

“I’ve got armor,” Frank says, flat, blanket dismissal. “Come here.”

And then she collapses, flings herself against him, and Matt can smell the sudden acridity when her cheek chars the paint, melts the top layer polymer fibers in his vest a little bit. He hugs her anyway. His treated gloves don’t even singe as he pets her hair, rubs her back.

“It’s okay, baby girl. You’re okay. I’m so proud of you.” He picks her up, cradling her as she curls up against his chest, makes messy, wracking, dry-crying noises as he starts heading home again. Her face shrouds itself in steam, and by the next block her face is wet.

***

They don’t decide anything that night.

(“Lisa Margaret Joan Castle,” Maria barks, squeezing her daughter tight for at least a minute, getting blood and ash all over her shirt, “If you ever do something like that again, so help me-”

“Maria. She’s had a long night.”)

“I’ll just let you -” Matt starts, when Lisa has been cleaned and cuddled and put to bed.

“Stay,” Maria says, sad and tired.

“Please,” says Frank, uncertain.

Frank ends up in the middle this time, arms wrapped around Maria, Matt spooned up against his back. Matt listens to them breathe for a long time before anyone falls asleep.

***

Lisa and Frank are the first ones awake; it’s kind of disgusting how morning they are, at least when Frank has any kind of human sleep schedule at all. Matt can hear actual birds singing, in between the traffic and alarm clocks and garbage trucks and alley cats. They’ve clearly been up for a while; Frank made some kind of cheesy scramble. Sometime since Frank got out of bed, Matt and Maria have closed the gap, and she’s nestled against his chest. Matt really needs to buy her some silk nightgowns, if he’s going to be sleeping with them not-always-naked. His stomach kind of flips over at the idea, and he tries to ease out of bed, but she clings, and he’s still tired, and - he doesn’t really want to get up.

“But why do I have to wait?” Lisa is saying downstairs. “Nobody can hurt me, or any of us. Now that I know we can do the - the - you saw.”

“I saw you pretty upset.” Gently. Lisa doesn’t say anything. “Honey, it’s okay. It’s - it was an awful mess, right after a fight, and we should have protected you, and then - it’s normal, to be upset.”

You wouldn’t be.”

“I’m not - a good comparison.”

Why? You’re strong and not scared of anything and. I want to be able to fight and I could but it was still - just - awful, and it’s easy for you, why can’t I just-” she falls silent, seems to run out of words.

After a moment, heavily, “...you get used to it. But then it’s just awful in a new way, inside you. I’m not. I’m not a good person, you don't want -”

Matt squeezes his eyes shut, uselessly, presses his face into his hair.

“Shut up! That’s stupid, and - I liked it. Even when it was awful, I still did, I liked hurting him. Making him scared. Wrecking his hands so he couldn’t ever grab anybody again. If you’re bad so am I, so stop it, and stop telling me what I want!”

Frank sighs, swallows. “I don’t want you to be me, can I say that?”

Why?” she demands, again. “Give me one good reason not to be like you, without saying bad things about yourself!”

That’s some catch, that catch-22, Matt thinks, lips twitching in spite of the pang in his chest. She’d make a good lawyer if she could get the outbursts under control.

“I want you to be you,” Frank says after a moment. “I love you, just you, exactly the way you are, you don’t have to try to be anyone else.” A soft kiss - probably on her hair. “Baby girl, you’re perfect. And you’re the only you I got.”

They’re quiet for a long time; Matt starts to wonder if he should get up, come downstairs, pretend to be sleep-mussed and maybe ease the tension when Lisa says, very quiet,

“I remember dying. I remember - it took me longest.”

Gutshot, Matt remembers, and shudders.

“I feel like - like I’m in a fight all the time, only I can’t see it, or know where it is or when I have to be ready. I want to stop - hiding, or for the world to stop hiding all the awful bits from me, or. Something. Not just cause of you. I want to be part of the fight like you and Matt and Captain America and that. Is me.”

“Lisa...wanting to make the world better, to go out and put yourself on the line to protect good people and stop the bad ones, that’s all you, and it’s amazing. But that feeling about the world? About needing to see all the worst parts at once and looking over your shoulder, that’s - that’s the scum that hurt you, that’s them still hurting you. And if you try and jump straight from being a kid to being a soldier, you’re gonna feel it more and more. That’s why I want you to wait. You wouldn’t want me to go out without my vest to keep me safe, right?”

A swish of hair - shaking her head.

“Well, some of the things that protect you, inside, they get stronger when you grow up. You shouldn’t have to be ready to do a grown-up’s job. And - just because you want to be a hero, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get to be anything else you want, too, and this is the time when you should - you should be learning about anything and everything else that’s out there for you to want. If you let the fight be all you think about, all you ever do - you bleed right out, baby girl, you feel like. Like it’s the coldest day of the year, every day, and you can’t ever come inside. I don’t want that for you.”

There’s a sniff, and a rustle - Matt thinks, probably, she’s hugging him. Matt wishes he could.

“Hey, hey, it’s alright. I don’t feel like that anymore.”

“But there’s so much. To - do, in the world. How do you let yourself do other stuff?”

“Oh, hell if I know,” Frank admits, wearily. “You should probably talk to Matt about that part,” Matt startles, face warming, feels like he’s been caught, somehow, even though that’s ridiculous. “He’s the one who taught me I could have - any kind of life.”

“Okay,” Lisa says, after mulling it over, and Matt’s ears are still - they’re not actually ringing, he knows what that’s like and it’s horrid, and this is - not. That.

“Are they working it out?” Maria asks, and Matt twitches again. When did she -

“What? Um, why -”

“You’ve been mumbling,” she says, warmly amused, touches his lips lightly. “And making very odd faces. You just squeaked.” Matt can feel his blush crawling down his chest and Maria presses her grin against his shoulder. “Well?”

“Um,” Matt says, eloquently. “Yes?”

“Should we leave them to it?

“I think they’ve. Mostly got through the important parts.”

“Noted. Alright.” She gives him a lazy, sweet good morning kiss, then shoves the covers down so they’re both cold. “Can you get Junior up and bring him to breakfast when you come down?” she asks, and heads into the fray without waiting for him to answer.

***

Matt groans and stretches slowly, working out the aches in his shoulders, wrists, calves. He usually spends a few hours roaming on patrol, but nothing like the pace of his frantic, pointless search the night before.

“Dad says I can keep training,” Lisa says very quickly when Maria’s footsteps reach the kitchen, an immediate bargaining floor: and you can’t take it back.

“Mmm,” says Maria, while Matt disregards the idea of putting yesterday’s clothes on and finds a soft T-shirt of Frank’s to throw on over his boxers. “Is there coffee - ah, thank you dear.”

“And if I practice hard and Matt says I’m good enough and I have other hobbies and if I still want to when I’m older, I can be a superhero.”

Matt runs a hand through his bedhead as he pads into Frank Junior’s room, gently shakes his shoulder. “Hey, kid. Come on, everyone else is going to eat all the eggs.”

“That sounds reasonable.”

“Dad, how old is older?”

“That’s up to your mother.”

Frank Junior mumbles, resentfully and incomprehensibly, and rolls over.

“No vigilantism until you’re at least sixteen,” Maria says, with perfect equanimity, still sipping her coffee.

Matt - really wants coffee, honestly, who attempts child-wrangling before the first cup. Maria very cleverly got herself out of it. In the same spirit, Matt gives up, and just tugs Frank Junior out of bed and hoists him onto Matt’s hip. He grumps for a moment but then seems to resign himself to clinging to Matt’s neck like a koala as Matt carries him to the kitchen.

“Moooom! That’s, like, forever from now!”

“Oh, Matt. Thank you. Matt, how long was it between when you started training and when you started being Daredevil?”

Now she wants him to do math. He’s a lawyer, he doesn’t math.

“Uh, like, fifteen years?”

“There you go,” says Maria loftily. “I’m letting you do it in half the time. No whining.” Matt can actually hear Lisa’s teeth click shut. It’s so oblique, but so effective, he’s a little in awe - he’s sure from how she is in lessons that Lisa has absorbed a certain amount of tough soldiers don’t complain without ever strictly being told so.

“I’ll keep you busy,” Matt promises, depositing Frank Junior in his chair and finding his juice cup.

“Hey,” Frank catches the hem of Matt’s stolen shirt once he’s poured and passed Junior’s orange juice, and gently reels him in. Frank tugs him down by the back of his neck and kisses him softly. “Thank you. She said - you were really good to her last night.”

“I just - I mean. Of course,” Matt fumbles, feeling entirely not awake enough for this. Maria pays her good fortune forward, sets a cup of coffee on the table for him with a clink and an easygoing, “That’s yours.”

“Also, not that I don’t appreciate the aesthetic,” and he rubs a thumb over Matt’s hipbone through the shirt idly, “You should probably keep more of your clothes here.”

“You should probably keep more of yourself here,” says Maria, cracking more eggs into the pan.

Maria!” Frank hisses under his breath, in a totally pointless approximation of a stage whisper. “We were going to draw him into it gradually -”

“Oh, look around, would you?” Maria tells him placidly. “He’s already in it, not everything has to be a perfectly executed pincer maneuver.”

“I. Um.” Matt takes a big gulp of his coffee. It’s dark and rich, sweetened just like he likes it, one teaspoon of sugar and one of cinnamon. He kind of wants to sit down, right now, immediately, but the closest place is Frank’s lap, and that would. Probably not help with answering in a rational manner.

“Do you really think I should?” he stalls, feeling for the nearest empty chair; Lisa kicks it out a little from the other side of the table.

“Only if you want to,” says Frank solemnly, at the same time that Maria says, “Yes.”

“But it’s - I mean. What about the kids?”

“What about them? You help with them all the time,” Maria points out, “Crises included. They love you. We love you.”

“That’s not -”

“Hey, Lisa,” says Frank, either attempting to recruit a new partner for the pincer maneuver or just going for broke and trying swarm tactics. “You think Matt should move in, right?”

“Uh, yeah?” Lisa says, around the last of her eggs, her tone somewhere between duh and is this a trick question?

“Leading the witness,” Matt points out, but it’s starting to be difficult to keep a straight face; the corner of his mouth keeps twitching.

“Matt, all the cereal in your apartment is healthy and gross. I checked while I was waiting, it’s super sad.”

“I like my cereal,” Matt protests.

“Whatever,” mutters Lisa, gesturing her dismissive nonchalance expansively with her fork, “I can’t stop you making bad decisions.”

Frank is curled over, shoulders shaking in almost-silent laughter.

“You can bring the cereal.”