The building changed in front of him. It flickered and pixelated like a distorted image on a computer screen, and it hurt his head to watch and raised the hairs on the back of his neck, although that could’ve been from the static sparking through the air. Frank went still in caution and apprehension, but not surprise. This thing had been happening all over the city, even out in Brooklyn where he sometimes stayed, but the epicenter was here, in Hell’s Kitchen. He’d come looking for it, to see if this was the kind of problem he could solve. Even if his way of solving it would piss off the locals. Or, just one in particular.
Frank didn’t venture into Hell’s Kitchen often, needed a damn good reason to risk running afoul of the Devil, liable to show up any minute now, snarling and demanding to know what Frank was doing in his territory. (That was these hero types for you—worse with their turf than fucking gangs.) This reason qualified, though, this thing happening to the city, the buildings that would distort as you looked at them and change for a few seconds into other, unfamiliar buildings before returning to normal. No one had died yet, but Frank didn’t trust that to continue, and he wasn’t accomplishing shit sitting around Brooklyn. If there was something here, he’d find it, and the Devil be damned. Though if Frank thought about it, he hadn’t heard so much as a rumor of old Hornhead since this all started, not a single news report or blurry video clip of him saving a kid from falling off a newly-nonexistent balcony. It wasn’t like him. Across the street, the building snapped back into place, and Frank started walking towards it.
So, he might’ve been keeping an eye out for the Devil, and he might’ve come here with half a thought in his head about how well using a retractable rope hidden inside a club to swing from building to building would work if a building was suddenly no longer there, and he might’ve turned the corner into the alley just in time to see the choir boy take a nosedive for a handful of floors and land on the pavement with a sickening thud. Sometimes, Frank hated being right.
Head trauma, probable bruised ribs, and a definite dislocated shoulder, Frank noted as he checked Red over as best he could in the dim light, unconscious but breathing. He was in the red suit again, too, instead of that black one he’d been sporting lately, and Frank wondered idly at the change. Red woke enough to flail at Frank with his good arm when he popped his shoulder back into place, about the thanks he was expecting.
“Hey!” Frank said, catching his wrist before the fist coming at his face could find its target. “Pain in my ass. Oughta take you to the hospital.”
“No hospitals,” Red rasped, and passed out again.
Frank swore under his breath, but concurred. He felt the same way. But he couldn’t leave him here, so Red went over his shoulder and into his van, and onto the gurney he kept at his safehouse when they reached it some twenty minutes later, still dead to the world.
You spend enough time around so-called heroes, and you started to pick up on who could do what. Frank pieced together that he couldn’t sneak up on Red no matter how quiet he tried to be, and Red flat-out told him once that he could smell him from outside a closed window. So, that meant some kind of enhanced senses, and that meant the top of his suit went double-bagged in Ziploc and into the water tank when Frank wrestled it off to wrap bandages around his ribs. It might stop the stubborn bastard from trying to fight his way out as soon as he rejoined the land of the living, or at least slow him down.
The mask he left on. Not that he wasn’t curious—half a dozen years of trading hands on rooftops and back alleys would make anyone curious. He’d rip that mask off in a second if he thought it’d tell him something he needed to know. Except the math on that particular problem told him he’d end up with an anonymous face and an enemy he really didn’t want. Besides, it mattered fuck-all to him how the Devil spent his days.
Bandages wound tight, Frank was about to cuff Red to the gurney so he’d stay put and go back out again when he heard him begin to stir. He shifted on the thin padding and groaned because yeah, moving had to hurt.
He lifted his head in his general direction and said, “Frank?” And that was weird. Red only called him by his first name when he was trying, usually unsuccessfully, to talk him out of killing someone. Maybe saving the guy’s ass had temporarily earned him first-name basis.
“Yeah,” Frank said. “You hit your head pretty hard. Don’t try to move.”
To his great shock, Red actually fuckin’ listened. He laid his head back against the gurney’s pillow and settled in. “Where’m I?” he asked.
“Safehouse,” Frank told him shortly.
“Is it new?”
What the hell did it matter? “Not especially.”
Red frowned. “I don’t recognize it.”
Why the fuck would he—shit. Frank was left wondering, then, how many of his safehouses Red knew about.
Before he could broach the topic, though, Red asked something else: “Can I have some water?”
“Sure,” Frank said. That, he could do. He crossed the room to get a mug from the cabinet and settled on the Nelson & Murdock one because he thought Red might get a kick out of it, then risked turning his back on him to fill it at the sink. Red was probably too injured to sneak up on him. Probably.
“Why didn’t you take my mask off?” Red asked. It sounded like he was still on the gurney, but that was the only good thing about the question.
Frank went quiet for a second because he didn’t know what Red expected him to say. Settled on, “I didn’t think you’d appreciate it.”
“It’s sweaty,” Red complained, and Frank huffed out a laugh and thought—this is your brain on head trauma.
Whatever he was going to say to that died in his throat as he turned around and nearly dropped the mug, because the complaint had evidently meant that Red planned to do something about. Namely, he’d planned to take his damn mask off. Which he had, and was sitting there now like it was nothing, like he hadn’t kept his face and identity as close to his chest as a national secret for all the time Frank had known him. And he did know him. The face beneath the mask wasn’t anonymous like he’d thought. It belonged to the lawyer. Murdock. The fucking lawyer. His fucking lawyer, whether Frank wanted him or not, come to represent him every time he got arrested. Which, Frank was realizing now, was often after he’d been the one to get Frank arrested in the first place.
Questions crowded his mind until he couldn’t pick one, everything from if he fucking got off on this, to if he was really blind, to, stupidly, why he’d dyed his hair. That was so unimportant Frank felt dumb for even thinking it, but he remembered Murdock distinctly with dark red bordering on auburn, and not the strawberry blonde that grew out of his scalp now.
Red—Murdock—Frank didn’t know which one to think of him as—titled his head like a dog at a whistle. “What’s wrong?” he asked. “Your heart’s beating faster.”
And that, for what it was worth, was one mystery solved. He really was blind, certainly wasn’t making eye contact with Frank, and there’d be no reason to keep faking after showing the rest of his hand. Frank thought again about Red’s good ears and his sense of smell, and figured it out. Red couldn’t see, but the rest of his senses somehow worked overtime to make sure he didn’t need to.
“Is there something wrong with my face?” Red asked next when Frank didn’t answer. He touched his fingers gingerly to it like he was checking for bruises.
“No, it’s uh. It’s fine,” Frank said when he’d unstuck his tongue from the roof of his mouth.
Red smiled like he understood, though what he understood was beyond Frank’s ability to guess. “C’mere,” he said.
Right—the water. Frank forced his grip to relax a little so he didn’t break off the ceramic handle and walked it over slowly, like he didn’t know what unexpected thing Red would turn into next. All he did, though, was try to sit up as Frank approached and only managed it halfway before he blanched in pain. Muscle memory honed at hospital beds in infirmaries across two continents took over, and Frank got an arm behind Red’s back to support him the same way he would’ve done for his buddies in the marines. Red downed the water in a few gulps—the logo sadly lost on him, but maybe Frank would tell him later—and that left him half-cradling Red’s body with their faces too close and Red’s lips wet and his hand covering Frank’s on the mug. He hadn’t even noticed Red taking his gloves off.
“Thank you,” Red said, and, quite simply, closed the short distance and kissed him.
It was fast and almost chaste, but it was square on the mouth and unmistakable. Red pulled back and laughed, probably at Frank’s quickening pulse.
“It’s nice to know I still have that effect on you,” he said, and kissed him again.
Ok, Frank thought, and returned the kiss with minimal pressure because it seemed to be the course of least resistance while he figured out what the fuck was going on here. Some kind of inhibition-lowering drug, maybe, he reasoned, and then did a double-take at the assumption that what Red wanted deep down was to reveal his very secret identity to Frank so he could make a move on him. No, that was ridiculous.
Red’s hand curled around the back of his head to pull him closer, and then he recoiled like he’d been stung. “When did you cut your hair?” he asked accusingly.
“Uh. Couple days ago,” Frank said, and tried to figure out why the hell it mattered. He’d kept it buzzed military-short since he was seventeen.
“Why?” Red asked in that same injured tone.
Jesus, you’d think he kicked a puppy. “Gets in the way.”
“You cut your hair.” The way he said it sounded like the world’s greatest betrayal, and Frank wasn’t sure whether he wanted to laugh or bang his head against the wall until things started to make sense.
Then he remembered: the buildings changing, glitching in and out of reality, and sometimes, the people with them. Reports of friends who acted like strangers and strangers like friends, who talked about things you didn’t know and places you hadn’t been like they expected you to have the other half of the story, who sometimes caught a glimpse of the Manhattan skyline and would stop and stare and ask what happened to the missing buildings. Completely unpredictable people who did shit you’d never in a million years expect.
Taking a step back, Frank looked down at the man on the gurney critically. This was the Devil—just not the one he knew.
“I gotta pick up some stuff,” Frank told him. “Stay here and rest. I’ll be back soon.”
The strangest part of it all might be how easily Red listened. He eased himself down again and closed his eyes and said, “Ok. I love you.”
Frank got out of that room like it had a bomb in it.
Ground patrol was agonizingly slow, slower still when Matt had to keep retreating into the shadows lest civilians saw him in the mask. A gaggle of girls emerged from a bar, drunken and giggling, and he slipped behind a dumpster to wait them out while they hailed various cabs. Matt ground his teeth in frustration. He should’ve worn his suit under street clothes, but he hadn’t known the last railing he wrapped his baton around would vanish halfway through his swing to the next building. Whatever had been changing the buildings was working faster, now, and he’d barely felt the warning static that accompanied a shift before he found himself in freefall. He’d retracted the rope in time to save himself, but it had been a near thing and he couldn’t risk it again, and couldn’t risk going home to change, either. He was close to something; he could feel it in his gut.
The girls dispersed, but Matt barely made it a dozen feet down the alley before he had to hide again from a man using the wall as his urinal. He kept still and in the shadows and started to rethink going home, but that wouldn’t solve the real issue that was rapidly becoming clear. Patrol like this was too slow. He needed help, and he wanted to hit something, and then Matt heard a sound that might be the answer to both his prayers at once. A heartbeat.
Strong and almost eerily steady, Matt would recognize it and the man it belonged to anywhere. He didn’t like working with Frank Castle, his methods brutal and barbaric and everything Matt fought against. If he was here for the same reason, though, he might as well make himself useful. And if he wasn’t, Matt would kick his ass back across the river.
He listened for a sense of Castle’s direction and circled around the block to cut him off. The buzzing streetlights combined with the angle of the wall told him that this particular stretch of alley was dark as pitch, and Castle wouldn’t see him until he wanted him to.
And then Castle rounded the corner, and Matt hesitated because he could smell his flop sweat and hear his breaths coming just a little too fast. On anyone else, it wouldn’t have been evidence for more than moderate physical exertion, but on anyone else, the stress coming off of Castle probably would’ve resulted in a panic attack.
A few steps away from Matt, he stopped and muttered, “Come on, where are you?”
You, he’d bet, meaning someone Castle wanted to shoot. Damn it. Like he didn’t have enough to worry about with Hell’s Kitchen shifting like sand beneath his feet.
“Looking for someone?” he asked, and felt a touch of vindictive pleasure when Castle jumped and spun around.
“What’s wrong with you? Don’t scare me like that!” Castle snapped, and then breathed out like relief. “Are you ok?”
Matt took an involuntary step back as Castle approached him, but his back hit the wall and left nowhere else to go. “I’m fine,” he said cautiously.
“Shit. I thought I saw—” Castle’s hands came up, but before Matt could raise his own to defend himself, they settled on his shoulders and then skimmed over his arms and down his torso as if searching for injuries.
“I’m fine,” Matt repeated, more bewildered by the second. Maybe Castle had been following him for longer than he thought, watching him through his scope from a vantage point past where his senses could perceive, and had seen him fall earlier. Maybe from a distance, it looked worse than it had actually been. That might provide some context for Castle’s words, but it didn’t explain his actions. He’d seen Matt in far worse scrapes, bruised and beaten and bloody, and hadn’t offered more than some rudimentary first aid and a snarky comment about getting a real weapon. This was something else.
This was something that had Castle’s hands on him, and then his arms around him as he pulled him into a hug. Matt went past bewildered and right into shocked. Chest to chest with Castle’s cheek against the side of his mask and his hair tickling Matt’s nose, Matt realized his hands were gripping the back of his Kevlar without even knowing how they’d gotten there. He let go, and Castle thankfully took that as his cue to do the same, or so Matt thought when he felt his hold relax. In reality, Castle only adjusted his position so he had enough room to rest his forehead against Matt’s, and then to kiss him.
Matt’s mind went blank. “What,” he said, when Castle let him up for air.
“Shut up,” Castle said, and that surprised him so much that he did.
So much that he started kissing Castle back.
This was crazy, Matt thought, crazy and stupid and didn’t make sense—but it did make sense, if he let it. The tension between them when they fought, the thrill he felt in the rare times Castle agreed to do things Matt’s way and work together, the bordering-on-obsession he felt when he knew Castle was in his territory and couldn’t think about anything else until he confronted him. All of it translated so easily to Castle’s mouth on his.
Eventually, Castle pressed a last kiss to his lips and started to move away, but Matt wanted more, now, and took Castle’s face in both his hands so he could get it. Castle went with it easily, and kissed him dirty and perfect like he had a roadmap to Matt’s mouth.
“Keep doing that, and I’ll have you right here in the alley,” Castle said in a low voice that Matt discovered he liked, he really liked.
He laughed in giddiness, then stopped as he heard Castle’s heartbeat, and not the one in front of him, still close enough to touch. Down the alley, he heard Castle’s heartbeat again.
In the few years of his life that Matt could remember seeing, he’d never seen double. Foggy had described it to him once, and it sounded unpleasant enough that it was one part of eyesight that Matt decided he wasn’t missing out on. Now, he thought it was probably something like this, Castle walking towards him as Castle stood next to him—no longer touching, thank God.
The new Castle didn’t seem surprised to see his double, and the one that had been there sucked in a quick breath that was almost a gasp, but still seemed better prepared than Matt felt, though that wasn’t saying much. He focused with his senses as if willing them to merge into one person or become two different people, but they remained identical and separate. It was giving him a headache.
“Castle,” the new one said, and finally sounded a touch uncomfortable. “I think I have something of yours.”
The other Castle’s pulse ticked up, and Matt felt the temperature shift as his face heated. He didn’t know why, unless he thought the new Castle had seen them, and then Matt’s face was heating, too. But all he asked was, “Where?”
“Safe. I’ll take you.” He turned back in the direction he’d come from and gestured for his double to follow. “You too, Red,” he added. “You want to know what’s going on, right?”
“Uh. Yeah,” Matt managed.
“Easier if I show you,” Castle said shortly.
That usually wouldn’t have been enough to convince Matt to get into Castle’s van, but he didn’t usually make out with Frank Castle only to be interrupted by a second Frank Castle, and he didn’t see anyone else offering answers. The ride, stuck between the two Castles like a buffer zone of embarrassment, was silent and blessedly short.
It felt strange to walk into one of Castle’s safehouses without a scratch on him. The last time he’d been in one, a different one, probably abandoned as soon as he left it, he’d been holding a loose flap of skin on his stomach shut with his hand and delirious from blood loss. This safehouse carried the same smell of gunpowder and antiseptic that made him want to start checking his body parts to make sure they were all still attached.
But that was nothing compared to how it felt to step into that room and meet himself. The two Castles he’d already half-begun to think was some kind of trick, but Matt knew what his own body felt like, and knew the man laying on the gurney was him as sure as he was.
“Oh,” other-Matt said. “Well, that explains a lot.”
Castle—the one that that kissed him—crossed the room at a near run and took other-Matt’s hand in his. “Fuck. Jesus Christ,” he swore. “What happened? Are you ok?”
“Yeah. You patched me up. Not you, I mean. Him. Other you,” the Matt on the gurney explained, or tried to.
The Castle holding his hand leaned in, and Matt perceived it in slow-motion, mortified that they were going to kiss right in front of him and the Castle that he was starting to think was his Castle, but what happened was, if anything, worse.
“Ugh,” other-Matt said, turning his face away with palpable disgust. “Who’ve you been kissing?”
Other-Castle sighed. “I’m sorry, ok? I thought he was you.” Then, “How can you tell? He is you.”
“He uses a different toothpaste,” other-Matt said, and his voice softened as if he smiled. “It’s ok. I kissed mine, too.”
Matt turned his focus to Castle, but as usual, the man gave nothing away. He didn’t even react when other-Matt went on sternly, “But not like I was trying to find out what he had for breakfast this morning.”
Out of all the times he’d been attacked by second-rate supervillains or the lackeys of organized crime, it could never happen when Matt needed it.
“You might as well make yourself comfortable. Murdock,” Castle said, and Matt picked up on something he hadn’t before: the movement of other-Matt’s hair in the air from the vents, which meant nothing was covering it or his face beneath. “I hear that mask gets sweaty.”
A.I.M. was behind it. It fit, but not so well that Frank felt stupid for not putting it together earlier.
“Why is A.I.M. opening interdimensional portals?” Red asked.
“They’re science nerds,” Frank said at the same time as Frank-2. His double smirked at him while he glared back and Red-2, on the gurney the rest of them gathered around for this little debrief, positively beamed. At least Red had the decency to look a little unnerved. Frank could see that because he stood there barefaced, something he was still getting used to.
“Because it’s wildly profitable,” Red-2 explained. “Something that’s rare on our side might be abundant or undiscovered here.”
“So, it’s coming from your side? Your A.I.M.?” Red asked.
Red-2 nodded. “Yeah.”
“But they need a handshake on this side to make it work,” Frank-2 added. “Usually, that’s the other A.I.M. Only people who understand the science and are crazy enough to let them in.”
Rumor had it A.I.M.’s latest headquarters sat in a nondescript building just outside the city, which might mean they could clean up this mess before morning. “And you need a local to tell you where you can find them,” Frank guessed.
“Nah. We got a way of tracking ‘em,” Frank-2 said. He pulled a gadget out of his coat like a slightly outdated ham radio with a screen on it.
“The handshake gives off a unique energy signature,” Red-2 said, and then, hopefully, “We could use a ride, though.”
Which meant he’d need the top half of his suit. Frank-2 followed him as he retrieved it from the water tank because Frank couldn’t think of a good way to make him stop.
“Smart. I’ll have to remember that one,” he said approvingly. “You really didn’t know who he was?”
Frank shook his head. “I knew what he can do. Here,” he said, and shoved the bag at him.
He took it, and, back at the gurney, helped Red-2 sit up and get dressed. Frank couldn’t look away from them, from their quiet conversation or the gentle way they touched. In the middle of the room, Red leaned against a concrete pillar that supported the roof on the opposite side from their alternate-universe selves, but he had to be just as aware as Frank—or moreso. God knew what his senses picked up.
Probably not colors, Frank thought as he stared at the grey around Frank-2’s temples. They were older than him and Red; Frank noticed it now that Red and Red-2 were in the same room, the difference in crows’ feet and laugh lines when the other one smiled. Watching them felt like staring down the barrel of his own future, one where he grew into an old man and looked in the mirror one day to see a face his wife and kids would no longer recognize, like being trapped in a car that had gone off the road and was hurtling towards a cliff. (A situation that, incidentally, Frank had been in twice.)
Frank wasn’t a soldier anymore—he didn’t follow orders and he didn’t join teams, and the select few people he worked with were on an as-needed and strictly temporary basis. He made a choice in everything he did, and when he went down swinging someday, he’d choose that, too. It was the life he’d made for himself and the only thing he really had left. It didn’t have room for this, this glimpse at the future and tug towards the inevitable like God’s own practical joke. Like the universe saying, you will fall in love again, you will love someone you have to live with the fear of losing, and as if that wasn’t bad enough, it’s going to be this sanctimonious prick.
A glint of light caught Frank’s eye, and he saw for the first time the ring on Frank-2’s finger, on the ring finger of his left hand. Frank hadn’t worn his wedding ring since Maria’s death because she was gone and wasn’t coming back and there was no use pretending, and he couldn’t bear when strangers noticed and treated him like a married man. Maybe Frank-2 had, though, or maybe Frank just wanted that to be true for the few seconds before his eyes found the matching ring on Red-2’s hand, and his heart began pounding in his ears. Red turned to his with his brow furrowed and his mouth open as if he were about to ask what was wrong, but Frank turned and stalked to the other side of the room before he could. Out of all Red’s abilities, he was grateful mind-reading wasn’t one of them. Frank hated psychics.
Four people wouldn’t fit in Frank’s front seat, riding around with a man who appeared to be his twin would be too memorable on the off-chance someone saw them, and he’d sooner let Red drive than Frank-2. So, Red got the passenger seat by default and Frank’s trenchcoat to hide the suit, and their doubles got shut in the back, after which Frank breathed a little easier. He mounted the energy-tracking ham radio on his dashboard and pulled out onto the road.
“I’m really blind,” Red blurted about ten minutes in.
Biting back the more sarcastic response that wanted to come out, Frank said, “I know.”
“Chemical spill that blinded you. When you were a kid. Something in that goop enhanced your other senses,” Frank finished for him. The dumbfounded look on Red’s face was funny enough that he couldn’t help a grin. “I read the papers, Red. It’s not that hard to figure out.”
Red stayed fish-mouthed for a minute longer, then recovered and leaned back in his seat. “Convincing people I’m actually blind is usually the hardest part.”
“How many people know?” Frank asked. Given the way Red kept it secret, he was surprised anyone knew.
“Not many. Foggy. A few others,” Red told him vaguely.
Frank grunted in acknowledgement and mentally filed away the information. Useful to know the next time Red got injured, he could call him in sick.
The ham radio put their destination at a good forty-five minutes away, giving Frank plenty of time to sneak glances at Red out of the corner of his eye as he drove. He still had a million and one questions, but didn’t want to ask them with Red-2 still undoubtedly close enough to hear. The thought of him and Frank-2 in the back led to another, that Frank shouldn’t trust them just because one of them was him. Maybe especially not.
Quietly, he asked. “Can you hear them?”
“Yeah,” Red answered.
“Can he hear us?”
“Yeah,” Red said again. “But I don’t think he’s listening right now.”
Frank didn’t like the way he said it. “What’re they doing back there?”
“You don’t want to know,” Red told him, his expression shifting to a polite grimace.
The surrounding traffic was the only thing that kept Frank from slamming the breaks. “Do not tell me they’re—”
“No! Oh, God. No,” Red said immediately. “Not that. They’re, uh. Cuddling?”
“Cuddling,” Frank repeated flatly.
“I told you, you didn’t want to know,” Red reminded him, and sighed. “He heard that. Now they’re laughing at us,” he reported, like it was Frank’s fault.
Frank grumbled under his breath and pressed his foot down on the gas. The sooner this was over with, the better.
A.I.M.’s headquarters looked like an old factory and was built like a fortress. Quiet on the outside, Matt’s senses told him bodies scurried within like rats in a warren. He and Castle hung back in the shadows while other-Castle made an opening in the fence with a pair of wire cutters and other-Matt kept an ear out for the guards making their rounds.
Their doubles moved together like a well-oiled machine. When Castle had parked the van at a safe distance of a few blocks away and opened the back, they’d already had gear picked out and had tossed them each a duffel. Castle had caught his and opened it with fast, jerky motions that spoke of anger and more than a little suspicion, but he only grunted at the contents.
“You sure we’ll need this?” he’d asked.
“Trust me,” other-Castle had said, and, well, it’d gotten them this far.
In the present, other-Matt slipped away to where they stood and said, “It’s ready. The lab will be in the center of the facility. We’ll go in from above, you from below. After we leave, count to thirty and—”
His vitals went haywire. The wrongness of it set Matt’s teeth on edge, unlike anything he’d ever felt before—the other Matt’s pulse spiking dangerously high and vanishing at once, the cry of pain from his mouth sounding more like distorted feedback than human speech. Just went Matt thought it couldn’t get any stranger, it did, the previously well-defined edges of his body fading like smoke, like the doppler effect of a car’s radio fading into the distance. Dimly, Matt realized it was happening to other-Castle, too, and then, as suddenly as it had started, it was over.
Groaning, other-Matt pulled himself from his knees where he’d fallen back to his feet. Other-Castle did the same with a few curses tacked on for good measure.
“What the hell was that?” Matt asked.
Castle answered while the other two still caught their breath. “They glitched. Like the buildings.”
That couldn’t be good, and the next thing other-Matt said confirmed it. “It’s what happens if you stay too long in a parallel universe. Our bodies aren’t made for it.”
“What does that mean?” Matt asked, sensing there was more. He knew what his own voice sounded like when he was sugar-coating it.
“It means if we’re here for more than another few hours, we’ll get torn apart at the atomic level,” other-Matt answered.
Castle made a sound of disbelief. “You didn’t think it was relevant to mention that sooner?”
“We didn’t know when it would start,” other-Castle said. “We’ve never crossed over for this long before.”
“Never crossed over without knowing it before, either,” other-Matt said darkly. Whatever A.I.M. was doing in their reality, it sounded like it was getting worse.
“Sounds like you have to get moving,” Castle surmised.
“Wait,” Matt said, because that plan had one glaring flaw. “They can’t go in together. If that happens again—”
“Yeah.” Castle ran his nails along his scalp and sighed. “Ok. Castle, you’re with me.”
A trade-off of duffel bags and quick regroup had the two Castles going through first. Matt focused on them as they ran across the dirt-packed ground and to the northwest corner of the building, where other-Matt assured him was a blind spot in the security cameras and a door with a breakable lock.
“So, you’ve done this a few times,” Matt hazarded.
The other shrugged. “More than a few. The energy’s harder to track from our side, so enough of their people keep escaping to try it again.”
The undercurrent of exhaustion in his voice made Matt want to offer something, but sorry sounded stupid and he didn’t have a solution. He listened for the sound of a lock breaking, and when it came said, “They’re in.”
“Are they giving you ideas?” other-Matt asked as he shifted the weight of the duffel bag on his back, getting ready to move.
Matt played the words over in his mind, but they still didn’t make sense. “What?”
“The two of them,” other-Matt said, and then, suggestively, “Because they’re giving me ideas.”
Heat rose to Matt’s face. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“Liar,” his double said, and took off through the gap in the fence at a run.
Pushing his own way through, Matt kept up and thanked God the current situation prevented them from talking. They rappelled up the wall together and made quick work of the few lookouts on the roof, batons connecting with their targets and returning to them in unison like they had it choreographed. Matt had wished before that there were two of him, or ten of him, so he could defeat the impossibilities of time and distance, be all the places he needed to be and save all the people he needed to save. The reality of it was at once disconcerting and heady, and made him feel unstoppable.
Unfortunately, other-Matt had to ruin it by opening his mouth again as they checked the unconscious A.I.M. members for a key to the rooftop door. “He kissed me back, too,” he said. “In case you were wondering.”
“I wasn’t,” Matt said shortly.
“Do you really expect me to believe you’ve never thought about it?”
Matt didn’t answer.
“Because you kissed mine for a long time, for someone who’s never thought about it.”
A muscle ticked in Matt’s jaw, and he knelt beside the next body.
“You’re thinking about it now.”
“I’m thinking about how to get you home before you get torn apart at the atomic level,” Matt reminded him, but it didn’t have the desired effect.
The other just laughed, which, if Matt thought about it, was his own response to imminent death. Other-Matt said, “You know I know when you’re lying.”
“Didn’t Foggy ever tell you that’s invasive and creepy?” Matt asked, because he felt every time his own Foggy had smacking him in the face, and along with it the guilty realization that he’d been right. Always, he’d thrown his hands up in mock-surrender and claimed he couldn’t help it, but the truth was that he hadn’t tried. He’d thought his enhanced senses compensated in only a small way for his lost sight and he’d be damned if he didn’t use every advantage available to him, but Foggy didn’t know when he was lying or hiding something, and he’d never had to wonder, in the back of his mind, if his best friend was listening to his private conversations from a block away. It wasn’t the same.
At the mention of Foggy’s name, the other Matt stiffened, and his pulse went up before evening out. “He did,” he said, after a pause, and a seed of concern took root in the pit of Matt’s stomach. They’d fallen out again, he guessed, and tried not to think about what that meant for his own future.
He was still not-thinking about it when other-Matt pulled a keycard off a guard’s belt with a ha of triumph, and crouched near the door to listen. Matt joined him and heard what he did—a dozen men on the other side, all armed.
“I’ll take the right if you take the left,” other-Matt said in a murmur.
But Matt had better ideas. He snagged the keycard before the other could react, swiped it, and stepped inside.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Matt said, and smiled into the comically long beat as the men in the hall turned and, presumably, gawked. “I don’t suppose any of you could point me towards the restroom?”
They unfroze and attacked just as other-Matt took out the lights.
Ninety seconds later, Matt reached out to help other-Matt up from where he’d fallen under two now-unconscious bodies. “Cute trick,” he said, and went on to say something about how he’d done this enough to know what was coming and Matt should follow his lead, but Matt wasn’t listening anymore, because he’d grabbed other-Matt's left hand to pull him up and felt a bump under the glove on his ring finger, right where a wedding band would go.
Matt didn’t curse often. Spending half a childhood in the care of nuns tended to have that effect. Sometimes, though, the situation called for it. He turned to the other Matt and, in a strained voice demanded, “You fucking married him?”
Working with himself made Frank’s skin crawl. They blocked off the basement in case anyone (or anything) was lying in wait below and cleared the first floor with a speed and efficiency that hit more like a training exercise than the real thing. He kept checking behind him and peering into corners with the persistent feeling that he’d missed a spot, only to see a corpse with a bullet hole between the eyes that looked like he’d put it there—but he hadn’t. It felt like losing time, like some kind of reverse-déjà vu, and the easy, assured way Frank-2 pressed forward wasn’t a comfort.
Logically, Frank should prefer this to working with Red. He didn’t have to slow down and compromise with non-lethal methods, and anyone supporting A.I.M. surely deserved his brand of justice. But Red had a familiarity to him that might just ground him in this fucked-up night instead of this descent into the uncanny valley, and Frank was maybe starting to second-guess his knee-jerk reaction to volunteer himself as his alternate’s partner and leave Red with his. It wasn’t that Red-2 bothered him; the guy kissed him, but he’d been sweet about it, not the way Frank-2 had Red pinned against the wall of that alley. Leaving them alone together just hadn’t felt right. Frank balked at the thought as soon as he had it. What was he, jealous?
Was he jealous?
“You wanna ask, you can ask,” Frank-2 said as he set the charges around a reinforced door.
Frank stared resolutely down the hall behind them, where he had his gun pointed in case any A.I.M. assholes were dumb enough to stick their heads out, and ignored him.
“I can hear the wheels spinning in your head from here,” Frank-2 said mildly.
If he let his lip curl in anger, it was only because the other couldn’t see it.
“I know you wanna ask. I’m you.”
“You ain’t me,” Frank said, against his better judgement.
“Classic Frank move,” Frank-2 drawled. “Head-first into denial.”
“Just because you have my face don’t mean I won’t punch you.”
He chuckled. “Threats of violence, hating yourself. Going for a full Frank bingo tonight.”
“You think I don’t see that ring on your hand?” Frank snapped. “You remarried. I could never—”
Frank-2 stopped what he was doing to look at him. In his periphery, Frank could see it, but didn’t look back. “How long’s it been for you? Five years, six?” Frank-2 asked.
“Six,” Frank admitted reluctantly.
“Sounds about right,” he said, returning his attention to the door and the charges. “Word of advice, Frank. You ain’t dead yet.”
He barked out a laugh, short and humorless. “So, what? I’m supposed to just move on? Forget about them?”
“I didn’t forget,” Frank-2 said, something angry, something real finally seeping into his voice. “I miss ‘em. Every day, I miss ‘em. I miss Maria like a hole in my chest. And the kids, shit. I wake up some mornings and I still listen for Lisa and Billy—”
And Frank turned to him and stared, forgot where his eyes were supposed to be and let his guard down like he hadn’t since boot camp. A.I.M. could’ve surrounded them and he wouldn’t have noticed. “What did you say?” he asked.
“What?” Frank-2 asked, and if he was faking, if this was some morbid joke, he was good.
“You named the boy after—”
“My best friend, who died saving my life in Afghanistan,” he said slowly. “Seemed the least I could do.”
Frank thought he might be sick. He half-turned to keep an eye on both his double and the hall. “Word of advice,” he said, a caustic echo. “You meet Bill on one of these trips, don’t be so quick to trust him.”
“Is he still alive here?” Frank-2 asked.
“No. Not anymore.” He’d seen to that personally.
His double’s brow pinched and his mouth opened like he wanted to ask, but thought better of it, which was just as well. There was too much to say. “What’d you name yours, then?”
“I didn’t. Maria did.”
Frank-2 waited him out, and eventually, Frank gave in. “Frank Junior. Don’t laugh. We were supposed to name him after her grandpa, but some wires got crossed and when he was born, she thought I was M.I.A.”
“You weren’t there?”
Obviously not, since he’d just said as much. “You were?”
“Yeah,” Frank-2 said, like an apology, and cleared his throat. “Listen. What’d you tell Maria, if you shipped out one day and didn’t come back?”
“Don’t do that,” Frank said.
“Because I told her I wanted her to live her life and be as happy as she could be,” he went on, relentless. “And if she met someone else, y’know, don’t waste time feeling guilty.”
Frank clenched his teeth hard enough to hurt. “C’mon. Don’t do that,” he repeated.
“But maybe you’re right. I ain’t you,” Frank-2 said evenly. “Maybe you never told Maria that because you couldn’t stand the thought of her with someone else, even if you were dead. Maybe you’re just a little more selfish.”
“Fuck you,” Frank snarled. “I—” He stopped there at the satisfaction on Frank-2’s face and didn’t get further; he’d set the trap and Frank had sprung it like an amateur.
“So, you think she’d want you to be alone and miserable?” Frank-2 asked.
“I don’t think she’d want to be dead,” Frank said flatly.
That hit home, worth it even if the recoil of that particular shot hurt Frank just as bad. Tension hunched Frank-2’s shoulders as he finished the door and stood.
“You don’t have to be scared of him,” he said.
The look Frank fixed him with was the one he usually reserved for people who were about to be in a well-deserved world of pain. “If you were me, you’d know what scares me.”
Frank-2 flashed him a half-smile. “Yeah. I do.” He waved Frank back a few steps and said, “Ok, cover your ears.”
The door went easily, which was more than could be said for the lab of mad scientists behind it. Frank had never seen a lab so well-armed or scientists so trigger-happy, but he wasn’t about to complain. He needed the distraction.
“I don’t know why you’re so surprised,” other-Matt said as they broke into the elevator shaft.
Matt was going to lose his entire mind. “You married Frank Castle,” he hissed.
“I’m aware,” other-Matt said a bit wearily, probably because it was about the fifth time he’d repeated it.
They each wrapped one half of their batons around a support beam and used the ropes to lower themselves to an elevator a few floors down, where they landed on the top soundlessly. It was empty now, but the chaos the two Castles were wreaking on the lower floors was liable to send every spare body to their most valuable asset—the lab in the center of the building. If they kept their mouths shut, other-Matt had said, they could ride right to it.
“He kills people,” Matt said, and hoped a little as he said it that other-Matt would contradict him, that maybe Castle didn’t in his dimension, or had stopped. Anything, to keep them separate from himself and the Castle he knew.
But instead, other-Matt said, “Yeah.”
“I don’t,” he confirmed.
“How can you justify it?” Matt asked desperately.
“Because you’ve never compromised,” other-Matt said, voice heavy with sarcasm. “That’s why you called the police on Frank as soon as he stepped foot into Hell’s Kitchen, and he’s sitting in a jail cell and definitely isn’t downstairs killing people right now.”
Matt shifted his weight uncomfortably. “These are extraordinary circumstances.”
“Extraordinary circumstances in which you knew Frank would kill people, and you didn’t say a word.”
“Do you want me to let you die?” Matt asked pointedly.
Other-Matt snorted. “So, this is the first time? You never brought him with you into a tight space because you knew he could get you out?”
The Castles were killing people downstairs; if Matt focused, he could hear the sounds of gunfire echoing up the elevator shaft. He crossed his arms and didn’t answer because he didn’t want to admit the truth, and his double would know when he was lying.
“Thought so,” other-Matt said smugly.
“That’s not the same as marrying the guy,” Matt retorted. “How could you even get involved with—?”
“Elektra? Natasha? A killer?” other-Matt asked, cutting him off.
“That’s not the same,” Matt said again, and again felt like the other had him under a microscope.
His double shrugged. “Elektra does it for money, or sometimes just because she wants to, Nat does it on order, and Frank for the same reason you put on that mask. He sees the injustice in the world and can’t ignore it. Either way, people still die.”
“He’s part of the injustice in the world,” Matt argued.
Other-Matt cocked his head to the side and asked, “Do you really believe that?”
The elevator started moving before he could’ve answered, even if he wanted to. Other-Matt leaned in close and said, lowly, “I know you understand what he does. I know you fight him like you fight that part of yourself.”
Matt opened his mouth to deliver a rebuttal, but the other held a finger to his lips as the elevator slid to a stop and the door opened, letting five heavily-armed people inside. It would take about thirty seconds to reach the right floor, though, which was suddenly thirty seconds longer than Matt could stand being stuck up here with himself, and thirty seconds where he could be doing something else instead.
He lifted one of the panels covering the top of the elevator and knocked out two of its occupants as he descended before the other three could react. Easy, Matt thought, and regretted it almost instantly. The elevator lurched to a stop as one of the A.I.M. members left standing hit the emergency button, and Matt lost his footing and crashed into the side railing hard enough to leave a nasty bruise on his hip. But he’d be lucky if that caused the worst injury he got tonight, because that honor might just end up belonging to the knife coming directly at his throat.
Frank stepped gingerly over the remains of the many-tentacled thing the A.I.M. scientists had let out of its tank when it became clear they weren’t going to beat two Punishers on their own. Not that it’d done much good—it now lay as dead as the rest of them and stank abominably, like fish guts left out in the sun for three days. He wasn’t usually squeamish, but Frank really didn’t want any of the slime coating its limbs on his clothes.
“Oh, shit,” Frank-2 said behind him, and Frank turned with his gun raised only to see him busily raiding a desk drawer.
He sighed through his nose and lowered his weapon. “What?”
“Dark chocolate M&Ms.” He held up a packet and shook it for emphasis. “They stopped making these on our side.”
“Is this really the time for a snack?” Frank asked. He couldn’t imagine eating anyway, with the fish-stink in the air.
“Nah, I don’t like ‘em. They’re for Matt,” Frank-2 said, shoving them into his cargo pants’ many pockets.
“Jesus Christ,” Frank said derisively, and continued towards the door that would lead them deeper into the facility.
Frank-2 caught up and asked, “Is it really that hard to believe?” And when Frank didn’t answer, said, “Come on, Frank. You like him.”
“He’s annoying,” Frank said, and he really had to stop letting his double get under his skin like this, but he couldn’t stop now that he’d started. “I swear, he waits until I’ve got the shot lined up and my finger on the trigger before he appears out of nowhere and ninja-kicks my rifle across the room. Then he’s all, ‘Don’t kill people, Frank. He’s a human being, Frank,’” he quoted mockingly. “I say, ‘He’s killing other human beings, Red, and he’s gonna kill more now since you won’t let me put him out of everyone else’s misery.’ And then he usually hits me. And he’s got the balls to ask me for help when it goddamn suits him, and still act like he’s better than me because he lets these scumbags live.” He rubbed at his temples, briefly. “Either yours is different, or you need to get your head checked.”
Frank-2 nodded slowly as if taking his time to absorb this. He went through the door first and called back, “Clear,” for Frank to enter the next room. Another lab, this one gutted and abandoned, and its sleek angles left nowhere to hide.
For a whole ten seconds, Frank thought that’d be enough for Frank-2 to drop it, but the guy was just as dogged as him. “Did he ask for your help tonight?” Frank-2 asked.
“No,” Frank said cautiously—wherever this was going, it probably wasn’t somewhere he’d like.
“Then why were you in Hell’s Kitchen?”
Asking questions like that probably meant he really did need to get his head checked. “Because it’s been glitching like a shit video game,” he said.
He had a moment of respite as Frank-2 crossed the room to another door and held his ear to it, then nodded and moved back to shoot the lock. The door swung open, and they stepped through into a hallway empty save for yet another door on the far side.
“So, you didn’t think he could handle it,” Frank-2 said.
“His way of handling it involves swinging from the rooftops with that piddly little stick of his,” Frank scoffed. “That’s gonna work real well when one of those rooftops snaps out of existence.”
“Hm,” Frank-2 intoned. “You were there because you were worried about him,” he said, and flashed a Cheshire grin. “You like him.”
“I think you want me to like him,” Frank said, going on the offensive. “I think you want to believe that what you and yours got is some kinda fate. There’s no such thing as fate. Life is just—”
“Random chance and suffering,” he said, completing a thought that Frank had never spoken out loud. Hearing it in his own voice made him feel like he’d missed a step going downstairs, or the entire flight. “I know it ain’t fate,” he said. “We don’t always meet ourselves when we cross over, but when we do, it’s different every time. Sometimes he’s dead, or I’m dead, or he left me to rot in prison and never looked back. But we’ve never met ourselves quite like this before, either,” Frank-2 told him with a smirk to show what he meant. “You’re me, and I know you, and I know how long you’ve been hurting. Ain’t every day you can pass on sage advice to your younger self.”
They reached the door at the end of the hall, and Frank-2 stooped again to listen, then stepped back and took aim. “Matt is caring and stubborn as all hell and fiercely loyal to the people he loves,” he said, and shot out the lock. He took hold of the handle and pulled the door open for Frank to go first. “He calls me out on my bullshit, and I call him out on his. I make sure he eats something better than stale takeout and bad coffee, and he wakes me up before the nightmares get too bad. And some days, yeah”—he laughed—“he does something stupid, and I still want to strangle him.”
Frank walked into the next room biting his tongue against the question he didn’t want to ask, but it came out, anyway. “How did it happen?”
“That’s a complicated question,” Frank-2 said, but before he could get any farther, a sharp, metallic clang had Frank spinning around to see a steel door sliding shut over the one they’d just broken through. Around and above it, he noticed the vents in the walls just as they started to fill the room with gas.
On the floor next to him, the other Matt groaned and rubbed at his side where the impact of falling into the elevator had hurt his sore ribs. He flicked the handle of the knife stuck into the wall where it’d struck an inch away from Matt’s throat.
“Did your Foggy ever tell you that you’re a reckless idiot who’s going to get himself killed?” he asked in a tone that bordered on murderous.
Matt smiled so the other would hear it in his voice and said, “Only every other day. I guess Foggy’s the same in every reality.”
He heard other-Matt’s pulse jump the same way it had at Foggy’s name earlier, and Matt almost felt bad. But he hadn’t been the one to bring it up.
Matt’s “little stunt”, as other-Matt called it, meant they had to rappel down the elevator shaft to the correct floor and then force the doors open. This was fine by Matt, and preferable to listening to an alternate version of himself wax romantic about Frank Castle, which wasn’t a statement he’d ever contemplated thinking before, and hoped he never would again after this night was over. The doors themselves did almost make him regret that he’d blown their cover too soon—they couldn’t get to the mechanism from this side, and the only way to open them was with a horrendous screech sure to bring everyone within hearing range. When they forced a gap large enough to slip through, Matt discovered that it had, the landing in front of them packed with armed guards standing shoulder to shoulder.
This time, he took out the lights.
“You’re hitting them too hard,” Matt said as they brought the last of them down.
A guard screamed as other-Matt broke his arm, then went silent as he knocked him out with a head-butt. “I’m hitting them just hard enough.”
“I mean, you’re going to kill them,” Matt pointed out, sure the other knew it. He had to know it.
“And if I stay here too long, Frank and I are going to die,” other-Matt said. “I’m going for speed and minimum casualties.” He swallowed and added, “You can’t always save everyone, Matt.”
“I guess Castle’s really rubbed off on you,” Matt said bitterly. Of course he couldn’t always save everyone, but that wasn’t the point. The point was that he always had to try.
“Sometimes,” other-Matt said in a clear innuendo.
Matt felt his ears burn, but he was past letting that distract him. So, they had sex—fine. He was used to it. “So, what? You just let him kill people?”
“There’s his kind of job, and my kind of job,” other-Matt said. “We try not to interfere with each other’s jobs, and when they overlap, we work it out. We still fight,” he said simply. “But I don’t ask him to stop because I know he can’t, and he doesn’t ask me to pull the trigger.”
“What happened to you?” Matt asked. He needed to know, so he could avoid it, turn down a different path than the one that would make him end up like this.
“Matt,” he said, and leaned against the wall like he needed it to support him. “Sooner or later, you’re going to kill someone.”
“No, I don’t—”
“You might have already,” other-Matt said, and explained, “Not everyone can take a knockout blow and get up again.”
In denial, Matt shook his head. “I think I’d notice if someone’s heart stopped beating.”
“How many people have you left laying on the ground unconscious?” other-Matt asked. “Do you always check the police reports, the hospitals? Do they always know it was you?”
“If I killed someone, I’d stop,” Matt said with what he hoped was finality. “I’d turn myself in, I’d—”
“No,” the other said softly. “You wouldn’t.”
He pushed himself off the wall with a muted grunt of lingering pain and gestured for Matt to follow as he turned a corner.
“Is that what happened?” Matt asked as he walked after him. “Did you kill someone?”
“If you drive drunk, you might crash your car and die. If you try hurting or raping or murdering someone in Hell’s Kitchen, I might find you and stop you. It’s not my job to know your medical history. At that point . . .” he trailed off.
“It’s in God’s hands?” Matt guessed, and the other nodded in assent.
He wanted to argue because that was how he made sense of the world, wanted to force the issue until other-Matt admitted he was wrong and Matt’s reality snapped back into some sort of order. But maybe he wasn’t supposed to. Maybe this was God’s way of telling him, not to stop because Matt had tried that before and he couldn’t, but to be more careful. Of showing him what would happen if he wasn’t.
And maybe Matt shouldn’t spend the scant time he had with his other self fighting about things that wouldn’t matter once he was back on his own side of the dimensional divide. Other-Matt was trying to help, as much as Matt didn’t like what he was saying. Maybe he should at least try and return the favor.
“Hey, Matt,” he said, his own name sounding strange in his mouth. “Whatever happened with Foggy . . . you should talk to him.”
“I can’t,” other-Matt said, and his heart beat faster again, and this time wasn’t slowing down.
Matt had been here before, though, and was surprised his double hadn’t. “It’ll be better if you do,” he said.
“I don’t mean I won’t. I mean I can’t,” he said, and then, like he had to force it out of himself, like pulling teeth, “He’s dead.”
It took half a second for the words to register, and then Matt stopped and felt like everything else stopped with him. “How?” he asked.
“Fisk killed him,” other-Matt said. “And I killed Fisk.”
“Bullshit,” Frank said, pitching his gas mask back into his duffel.
“Told you we’d need it,” Frank-2 said. He knelt in front of Frank, who sat in a chair in the control room next to the gas chamber. They’d eliminated the A.I.M. guards who’d entered in their own gas masks expecting to find them dead, but not before a stray bullet had found Frank’s thigh. Luckily—the only luck he’d had tonight—it had missed everything important, and the bandage would suffice until they finished the job. The wrongness of his double’s hands on him had Frank counting down the seconds as he waited for it to be over, but he couldn’t deny that the awkward angle meant Frank-2 did a better job than he could’ve himself.
But that wasn’t what had him throwing things. “You said—”
“You asked me how me and Matt happened, and I said, short answer is he killed Fisk,” Frank-2 said as he wrapped the bandage a final time.
“I don’t believe you,” Frank said, testing his weight as he stood. “He doesn’t kill people.”
Frank-2 stood with him, with the help of his hand on the console, joints popping loud enough for Frank to hear—and flinch. He figured that’d be him in a few years. “Y’know his partner? Nelson?” he asked.
“Fisk had him killed. Nelson & Murdock embarrassed him one time too many and—” he made a motion with his thumb, swift across his throat.
“Oh,” Frank said, and found himself convinced. If there was anything that could get Red to cross that line, that might be first on the list. “So, the altar boy finally saw the light.”
But Frank-2 laughed humorlessly. “Nah, not like that. I mean, he fuckin’ lost it.” He bit his lip for a moment as if considering and said, “I’d been wanting to go after Fisk for awhile, but someone like that, you gotta be sure, or you gotta be ready to not come back. Nelson, though. He was a good guy. I knew when I heard the news that I’d waited too long, so I started tracking Fisk. And I was there when he went after Matt.”
Invested despite himself, Frank put his weight on his good leg while he waited for his double to continue.
“I don’t think Fisk knew,” he mused. “Maybe he did and just got overconfident. There were rumors by that point, but the crazy conspiracy theory kind, y’know? Like how Daredevil sent people who needed help to Nelson & Murdock, and he always seemed to be around when they were in trouble, and you never saw him and the Murdock half in the same room. Me, I’d seen a lot of weird shit, and I about seventy percent believed it myself. But if I was wrong, I wasn’t going to leave a blind man alone. You ever fight Fisk?”
Frank nodded. “Yeah.”
“People think he’s fat, but he ain’t fat. He’s solid. It’s like fighting a brick wall,” Frank-2 said. “Or it was. Fisk went to Matt’s office, by himself. He wasn’t there to kill him—not yet. He wanted to taunt him first. It probably would’ve been better if”—he broke off, shouldered his bag. “Fisk was dead when I got there. And Matt was, uh. Covered in blood. Obviously in shock. He knew who I was as soon as I stepped in the room, before I even said anything, so I knew the rumors were true.”
Frank-2 breathed out in an almost-sigh and went to rummage in the dark corner of the room as he talked, as if doing something with his hands made that easier. “Matt put my gun to his chest and begged me to kill him. Didn’t want to live with what he did. I think he would’ve done it himself, if he wasn’t so Catholic. I didn’t,” he said, like Frank had somehow missed that. “I sedated him, called the press to tell them I killed Fisk, and got him out of the country to get him some help.”
“You kidnapped him.” Frank shook his head. “I bet he loved that.”
“Well, for the first two weeks, he was like a zombie,” Frank-2 said, returning with a cylindrical, metal canister half the length of his body. “Then he got mad and kept trying to fight me like I’d change my mind about killing him if he pissed me off enough. Then he started to get better. It took him two years to go back, but we’re in New York again, and he’s practicing law and jumping off of buildings with no sense of self-preservation and scaring the hell out of me. He’s ok.”
“What’s that?” Frank asked, indicating the canister with his chin.
The other lofted it over his shoulder and said, “Some of the poison gas.”
“Are we gonna need that?”
“About six times out of ten,” Frank-2 said, and made his way out of the room. “I don’t think he’d want me to tell you this,” he said over his shoulder as Frank walked after, only limping a little. “But you need to know, if you get a shot at Fisk—take it.”
“You didn’t need that sob story to convince me Fisk needs to die,” Frank said.
“Have you done it, then?” his double asked.
Frank glowered at him as he fell into step. “Like you said, you gotta be sure or ready to not come back.”
“Everyone’s not a killer, Frank,” Frank-2 said. “What happened to Matt, it was ugly. Spare yours that if you can.”
“He ain’t mine,” Frank countered, but Frank-2 only smiled at him knowingly, in the way he was beginning to hate.
He wasn’t lying. Matt wished to God that he was lying, but for all he could hear other people’s hearts, he’d never learned to control his own, and knew other-Matt hadn’t, either.
“They got him when he was coming home from the bar one night,” other-Matt told him. “They made it look like a mugging gone wrong, but I knew better. Fisk staged a drug deal on the other side of the island so I’d be distracted.”
“So, you went after him,” Matt said, when he was able to speak again.
The other Matt stopped at a door to listen, then made a dismissive noise and continued down the hall. “No. He came after me.”
“You defended yourself,” Matt said. If that was it, then—
“No,” other-Matt said again, dashing his hopes. “He came by the office to offer his condolences.” He spat out the last word like a curse. “Between that and his veiled threats, I—I’d grabbed a steak knife from the kitchen when I heard him coming, because I thought he’d figured out who I was and was there to kill me. It wasn’t planned. I don’t even remember the moment when I decided to do it. I was sitting at my desk, and then I was standing over him with the knife in my hand, and he was on the floor, clutching his throat. That was how he killed Foggy,” he said calmly, almost like an anecdote. “He had his throat slit.”
“When does this happen?” Matt asked. The other Matt was older than him, if only by a handful of years. He could hear it when he moved in his muscles and his bones. Once he had the timeline, Matt thought, he could send other-Matt back to his own reality and the horrors he spoke of with him, and prevent any of them from becoming true.
Other-Matt tried another door, gave a shake of his head, and moved on. “Did you win the Sandburg case yet?” he asked.
“We’re still working on it,” Matt said in a rush of mingled dread and relief. They hadn’t even had the first hearing, which might mean he still had time.
“We never got the Sandburg case. We were supposed to have an appointment with them the morning I got the call about Foggy. I’m not you from the future, Matt,” he said. “It doesn’t match up exactly.”
“What am I supposed to do, then?” Matt asked.
The other Matt sighed. “I can’t tell you that. Maybe kill Fisk, maybe not.”
“I can’t do that,” he said, and hated the lingering doubt, like an aftertaste, as he did.
“Then let Frank do it,” other-Matt suggested.
“Is that what you do now?” Matt asked sharply.
“I told you what I do now,” other-Matt replied. “Frank was watching Fisk when he came to see me. He followed him in and found me like that, still holding the knife.”
The irony of it almost made Matt laugh, the thought of Castle stalking his prey only to find the last person he could’ve expected beating him to it. “Did he offer to buy you a beer?” he asked.
“He didn’t get the chance. I wanted him to kill me,” other-Matt said evenly, and he didn’t have to elaborate, because Matt understood. “He knocked me out instead. I woke up in—I guess it doesn’t matter where. Frank took credit for Fisk. I was furious,” he said, and from the tone of his voice, smiled. “But he helped me anyway. Every day, for two years, he helped me. And he—you can tell, right? When someone’s attracted to you?”
Matt could; between pulse and respiration and the hormone-smell, anyone who got a look at him and liked what they saw might as well be announcing it with a megaphone. “I can tell,” he said.
“I thought I was going nuts at first. He’d seen me at my absolute lowest, out of my mind with grief and guilt and having fits when I wasn’t catatonic. When we first got to where he took me, I didn’t shower for a week until he threw me in the bath and hosed me down,” he said, and Matt felt the temperature increase as blood flowed into the other’s cheeks, like the memory was still embarrassing. “So, I thought, how could anyone possibly want me after that? But he did.”
At last, he seemed to find the right door and pointed Matt to flank one side of it while he took the other. “Everything I have now, I have because of Frank. By the time I went back to New York, I didn’t want to go without him. And we”—he paused there, and then said plainly—“we made it work.”
Matt pressed his back against the wall to mirror him and kept silent, because he didn’t know what to say. All his relationships had either been short-lived or crashed and burned as spectacularly as a pyrotechnic display, ending in death or disaster or someone storming out, sick of his lies and broken promises. He tried to imagine lying to Frank Castle and couldn’t, any more than he could imagine the man sitting at home and wringing his hands helplessly while Matt was out risking his life. Castle when he was after something was about as single-minded and determined as they came, and he’d pin Matt down and drag the truth out of him if he had to, or he’d track him down himself if he thought he had reason to worry. And, just like that, everything other-Matt said started to make an unavoidable kind of sense.
He remembered Castle’s hands on him, not other-Castle, but the Frank he knew. Colliding with him when they fought, sewing his wounds shut and covering them with bandages when they worked together, the way fighting side by side with him felt like flying. Oh, Matt thought. Fuck.
Before he could think much else, though, other-Matt moved so fast he almost missed it and tackled him to the ground.
A jagged hole with singed edges appeared in the wall where Matt’s head had been. Other-Matt slid off him, and he rolled just in time to avoid getting hit with another blast, which, he perceived as he focused, came from something large and metal hovering in the air a ways down the hall.
“Why does A.I.M. have an Iron Man suit?” he shouted over the sound of continuing laser blasts as they scrambled around a corner, the suit and its occupant close behind.
Other-Matt yanked him into a room and shut the door behind, shoving a table in front as reinforcement. “At this point, who doesn’t have an Iron Man suit?”
Matt shrugged in equivocation. “That won’t hold for long,” he said.
“It doesn’t have to. We just have to keep him distracted until the cavalry gets here,” other-Matt said with a certainty Matt wished he shared. “Any second now.”
The suit’s fists hit the other side of the door with an impact that sounded like a car crash, making Matt jump. He pulled out his baton to ready himself as other-Matt did the same, though he didn’t know what good it would do. In general, Matt picked his arena and played to his strengths. Those didn’t include going up against a mechanized suit with a stick.
The door splintered like matchsticks under a final blow, and the suit filled the doorway, with them undoubtedly in its crosshairs. Matt braced himself to dodge a weapon blast that never came. The man in the suit screamed, let out a choking noise, and then collapsed.
Frank and his double stood behind, and Matt’s heart flipped in his chest in a way that wasn’t entirely due to the fact that he’d almost just died. Next to him, other-Matt bit the inside of his cheek like he was trying not to laugh, and it was only the presence of the other two that stopped Matt from kicking him.
The knock-off Iron Man gurgled in a death-rattle and fell, and Frank nodded at the poison gas canister Frank-2 had latched on to the suit’s air intake. “Good call,” he said.
He looked up then and saw Red, both Reds, standing in the room behind, the one he knew in his black suit. Frank was kinda grateful they were color coded; not knowing which was which would’ve been weird, and he didn’t need more weird tonight.
“Hi,” Frank said stupidly.
“Hi,” Red echoed.
Their alternate selves grinned at him in unison, like you would at a baby with cake on its face, like he was being cute. It made him want to knock their heads together. Instead, he ignored them steadfastly and hoped to God that whatever Red’s senses could pick up on, it didn’t include this.
It turned out he didn’t have to hope for long, because their doubles glitched again, abruptly and without warning. Their faces pixelated and voices distorted like an out-of-tune radio as they screamed, like something out of a horror movie. Bad enough for him, he didn’t know what it felt like for Red, who still looked a little green around the gills when they snapped back to normal, though that could’ve been empathy for Red-2. He got unsteadily to his feet and staggered over to a garbage can in the corner, where he promptly lost the contents of his stomach.
“Fuck,” Frank-2 swore. He crossed the room in seconds and hauled his Red up by his arm, producing a rag from somewhere and pressing it to his mouth. “Easy, easy,” he said. “Are you ok?”
In response, Red-2 nodded and wiped his mouth with the rag. Frank-2 cupped a hand around the back of his neck and kissed his forehead through the mask, tender enough to make Frank’s chest ache, and Red-2 reached up and tucked a stray lock of hair behind the other Frank’s ear.
Should I let my hair grow? Frank thought, and then, at himself, What the fuck?
“Did you find the lab?” Frank-2 asked.
“Yeah,” Red-2 said hoarsely, and gestured in the general direction of the door.
Frank-2 helped him out with an arm around his waist. For just a moment, that left Frank alone with Red in the room, and that was enough to get him to spin on his heel and follow.
The lab, behind an unremarkable door around the next corner, sat blessedly empty of A.I.M. members—Frank guessed they’d used up their defenses trying to stop them from getting in here in the first place—and full of computer terminals and wires hooked up to spindly, metal gadgets that he hadn’t the first idea what to do with. But it seemed Frank-2 did, since he sat immediately in one of the desk chairs and started typing as Red-2 collapsed into the chair beside him. He looked like death warmed over, and Frank dug around in one of his pockets for a tin of breath mints and offered him one, which he accepted with thanks.
“How are you feeling?” Red asked his double.
“Sudden onset of flu symptoms,” Red-2 answered in brief.
“That’s how it starts,” Frank-2 said tersely, and coughed into his palm. Frank saw blood in it, and then smeared on his pants when he wiped it off.
Frank peered over his shoulder at the computer screen. “What’re you doing?”
“I’m locking onto the isotypes from our dimension,” he said. “When I’m done, it’ll pull us, everyone, and everything from our side over, and things will go back to normal here.”
“Is that the dimension where I went to MIT?” Frank asked. Code flashed by on the screen, and he didn’t understand a single line.
Frank-2 snorted. “I got my high school diploma, just like you. Nah,” he said. “David taught me enough.”
“Micro? Why didn’t he just give you a flash drive or something?”
“And if it’s not compatible?” Frank-2 asked rhetorically. “I had to understand the science. He can’t see the screen,” he said, with a tilt of his head towards Red-2. “It’s just a machine. Moving parts. We’re good at that.”
He smiled then, but Frank didn’t return it. The other had blood on his teeth.
“Don’t worry,” Frank-2 said, though Frank didn’t know if he were trying to convince them or Red-2 or himself. “We’ll make it.”
“We’d better. If I’m not back in time for court, Kirsten’s gonna kill you,” Red-2 told him. “And then who’s going to walk the dog?”
Frank felt like he’d been sucker-punched. They had a dog?
“Karen has agreed to take care of the dog in the case of my untimely demise, seeing as I have such a useless husband,” Frank-2 said, and it felt like familiar banter. “Besides, your partner loves me. You, she might kill.”
When Frank risked a glance at Red, his expression as off-kilter as Frank felt. “McDuffie?” Red asked.
“Murdock & McDuffie,” Red-2 replied. “I said McDuffie & Murdock, but she said the other way sounded better. Can’t argue with that woman.”
The name sounded familiar like Frank had heard it somewhere, and then he remembered: she showed up in the news, sometimes, hot-shot assistant district attorney, and a shoe-in for the next D.A. He recalled vaguely, too, hearing through the grapevine that her and Red used to go out, which filled him in on why Red looked like he’d just tried to take a step only to find his shoelaces tied together, but not why he wasn’t asking about Nelson. Frank wondered what Red-2 might’ve told him when they were on their own. The time to find out wasn’t now, though, and would maybe be never.
“Ok,” Frank-2 said. “All I gotta do is hit enter.” He swiveled around in his chair and nudged the duffel he’d dropped towards Frank with his toe. “This place is rigged with knock-out gas in case of an invasion. Fortunately for us, they didn’t think the four of us were enough of a threat. I’ve set it to go off in one minute, so you’ll have a clear path.”
“Thanks,” Frank said, and didn’t waste time; he dug the gas masks out of the bag and handed one to Red.
Then, Frank-2 held his hand out to Red-2, who took it and intertwined their fingers. “Are you sure?” Red-2 asked.
“Sure as I can be,” Frank-2 replied.
“If it’s off, I want you to know I—”
“I know. I love you,” Frank-2 said, and Frank couldn’t hear Red’s heartrate increase the way Red undoubtedly heard his, but he could see the surprised way he stiffened.
And Red-2 smiled softly and said, “I love you, too.”
“Ok,” Frank-2 said, this time like he was bracing himself. He tapped something on the keyboard, and just when Frank drew in a breath to ask what was supposed to happen, their bodies turned to light and disappeared.
For a long moment, Frank was silent, staring at the space they’d been. “Think they made it?” he asked.
“We made it,” his own voice said, coming from the computer. Frank started and looked up to see their doubles, standing against a backdrop that looked like the mirror image of the room they stood in now.
Red-2 leaned forward to talk to them, taking half of his face out of the frame in a mistake that Frank was mortified to find endearing. “We can't keep this channel open for long, but we wanted to let you know. Thank you for helping us. Take care."
The screen went dark, and they were gone. Red started to say something, but Frank tapped his gas mask emphatically because they’d already waited too long, and Red took the hint and hurriedly began adjusting it around his face.
A quick inventory of the duffels showed that Frank-2 had packed the last thing they needed—just enough plastic explosives to get the job done. They left the lab a smoking crater and walked out of the facility like they owned the place.
Matt slipped through the shadows thoughtlessly until they turned into the alley, where the presence of Frank’s van stopped him like he’d run into a wall. It sunk in all at once how very alone he and Frank now were, and how very much he’d need Frank and his van to get home.
He began to stammer something he couldn’t remember later, but Frank cut him off with, “Come on. You ain’t walking back to Manhattan.”
Not if he wanted to get there before morning. “Thanks,” Matt hazarded.
Frank’s responding grunt probably translated to, Don’t mention it. “Here. Put this on and lose the horns,” he said, tossing Matt the trenchcoat he’d left on the seat.
The chances of someone seeing them at this hour were vanishingly few, but it wasn’t worth arguing. Matt wrapped the coat around his shoulders, worn and surprisingly comfortable and smelling of Frank, and tried not to let that last thing let him blush. And then he did blush, because Frank held the passenger door open for him like a gentleman. Or, Matt thought a bit cynically, like Frank wanted to make sure he did as he was told. He ducked his head and got in the van, and hoped it was too dark to see his face.
Some fifteen minutes later, he almost regretted accepting the ride. Matt leaned his head against the glass pane of the window with aspirations of letting the rattling vibration drown out the sound, but he could hear it still: Frank’s tongue pulling away from the roof of his mouth, the intake of breath like he was about to speak. Every time, Matt tensed in expectation, and every time, Frank exhaled without saying anything.
When it happened three times in a minute, though, Matt decided he’d had enough. “Spit it out,” he said.
“What the fuck is your problem?” Frank asked in a sudden outburst.
“I’m sorry?” Whatever he’d been expecting, it wasn’t this.
“I don’t know who taught you good cop, bad cop,” Frank went on, “but it’s usually two different cops.”
Matt’s brain caught up, if slowly. “Is this about me representing you?”
“You know, I always wondered how you found out so fast that I’d been arrested. I never called you or nothing.” He laughed, short and harsh. “Guess you would know, if half the time you’re the one turning me in yourself.”
God, he had some nerve. “Maybe if you stopped killing people, I’d stop turning you in.”
“This ain’t about you turning me in,” Frank said with what sounded like forced patience. “I know how you operate. If I do something that’ll piss you off, I know you’re gonna try and stop me.” He paused, cracked his jaw. “But I’ll tell you what, there’s no goddamn reason you gotta swing by the next day to fucking gloat.”
For a second, Matt found himself at a loss for words, too angry to speak.
“I mean, is it a joke to you? You get a laugh out of it? Shit,” Frank swore. “I don’t even pay you.”
“Haven’t you ever heard of pro bono?” Matt asked thinly.
“Yeah, mostly from you,” Frank said like an insult.
Matt took a minute to focus on his breathing; lashing out at Frank now would probably lead to a fistfight on the side of the road. “I’m not there to gloat, Frank.”
“Then why are you there? To make sure I get ‘fair and equitable representation under the law’?’” Frank air-quoted with one hand while the other remained on the wheel.”
“Yes, actually,” Matt told him. “The D.A. wants your head on a pike. If I wasn’t there, you’d get stuck with some kid who just passed the bar and doesn’t know their briefcase from their shoes, much less how to keep you from getting extradited to a state with the death penalty. You’ve killed people in Texas, you know.”
“I have?” Frank asked.
Perhaps he’d committed so many murders that this shouldn’t be a surprise, but Matt still gaped. “You don’t know?”
“Nah, I know,” Frank said, smile in his voice. “I’m fucking with you.”
In spite of himself, Matt smiled back. “I represent you because I turn you in, Frank,” he said, more seriously. “I can’t do that and ignore the consequences.”
“Why not? Seems like it’d save you a lot of time,” Frank commented.
Because just thinking about it made his stomach turn and his chest hurt. “Because you deserve a fair trial, just like everyone else.”
“Come on,” Frank said. “You know I’ll just escape.”
“And if you don’t?” Matt countered.
Frank shook his head. “Jesus, you really believe all that crap you spout.”
“It isn’t crap,” Matt said testily.
“Yeah, yeah,” Frank said. “You’d feel responsible, is that it? You can’t even let the law kill me.”
Matt shrugged, turns his head towards the window and stuck his hands in the trenchcoat’s pockets. He’d done that before, a time or three, or he at least hadn’t gotten in the way. More than that, he’d bump into Kirsten accidentally-on-purpose, in her office or outside her favorite lunch spot or on her way home from the gym, and pull her aside for a quiet word. “Don’t ask me how I know,” he’d say, “but this one’s bad.” Not Frank, though—never Frank. If asked, he’d have said that Frank’s complexities made him an interesting and challenging case, and he liked showing his skill in getting him the best deal he possibly could. Now, he thought, if he let that happen to Frank, if Frank deserved it . . .
You fight him like you fight that part of yourself.
“I never asked for your help,” Frank said like a parting shot, more resigned than angry.
“I never ask you to come to my rescue when I’m about to get murdered or arrested, or to stitch my wounds when I’ve been beaten to hell and back,” Matt retorted, and leaned back against the seat. “I don’t expect you to thank me.”
He figured that would be the end of it, and for a good five minutes, it was. Then, “Thank you.”
That whipped Matt’s head around so fast he almost pulled something. “What?”
“I’m not saying it again,” Frank told him, and pressed his foot down on the accelerator.
After a stunned moment, Matt grinned, but it faded quickly as he smelled something—blood. Fresh blood.
“Are you hurt?” he asked.
“Got shot,” Frank admitted with evident reluctance.
“You got shot?” He’d noticed Frank favoring his left as they walked out of the facility, but his nose hadn’t picked out that bit of blood and gunpowder among all the rest. And Frank, he was realizing now, had toughed it out rather than let on how bad it was.
“The other one patched it up,” Frank said. “It’s fine.”
Matt didn’t want to know Frank’s definition of fine. “You’re bleeding,” he pointed out, and put a hand on Frank’s leg to assess the damage.
Frank’s muscles clenched hard enough that Matt almost winced. “Does that hurt?” he asked.
“No,” Frank said stiffly.
His heartbeat said he wasn’t lying, but he was clearly uncomfortable with—oh, Matt realized, and withdrew his hand. “Oh, for goodness’ sake,” he said. “I was only touching you to see how bad it was, not to . . . touch you,” he finished lamely.
“Nah, you got your fill of that earlier,” Frank quipped.
“You’d know something about that,” Matt rejoined, figured it fair, now, that Frank had started it. “He kissed me, you know.”
“And I didn’t see you stopping him,” Frank said.
About that. “We’re, uh. We have different experiences, obviously, but we’re physically the same. Us and the others.”
“So?” Frank asked.
“So, he knew,” Matt said, and squirmed, because he wanted Frank to shut the fuck up about this, but he didn’t have to like that this was the fastest way to accomplish it. “He knew what I like.”
The ensuing stretch of silence had been his goal, but he’d paid for it dearly. “The bullet’s still in there,” he said when he couldn’t stand it anymore.
“Huh,” Frank said, more breath than word—meaning, he hadn’t known.
“Pull over,” Matt said.
Frank kept driving.
“Frank. Pull over.” Matt pinched the bridge of his nose in frustration. “You need to get the bullet out before it gets infected. I know you have supplies in the back, I can smell the antiseptic.”
Just when Matt was starting to seriously consider throwing the emergency break, Frank turned off the road and parked the van behind a copse of trees. He flipped a switch on the dashboard, and the panel separating the cab from the back slid open behind them. Sitting hadn’t done his leg any favors, and Matt felt his teeth clench and heard his intake of breath when he moved, the pain bad enough that even he couldn’t hide it. But he didn’t make a sound—not when Matt helped him sit on the bench in the back, not when he cut off the bandage and Frank’s ruined pantleg beneath, and not when he made an incision with the scalpel in the first aid kit and cut the bullet out. Removing Frank’s clothes didn’t affect Matt like it would most people; he already knew what his body felt like, right down to his marrow. What he hadn’t known, though, was how the skin and short hairs felt on Frank’s upper thigh, and now that he did, he wasn’t likely to forget anytime soon.
Frank did hiss at the antiseptic as Matt flushed out his wounds, but kept still like a good patient. “You ain’t so bad at this,” he said, in the tone of someone looking for distraction.
“I learned when I was a kid. I used to patch my dad up,” Matt told him, threading the needle. “He was a—”
“Boxer,” Frank interrupted him. “Hey, I read the papers. Like I told you.”
“He got hurt a lot,” Matt continued.
“So, you learned from the”—his breath hitched, just a little, as Matt pushed the needle in—“best.”
The memory, bittersweet, made him smile. “Sure,” he said, and frowned over Frank’s wound. “An inch on either side, and this would’ve either hit your femur or your femoral artery. You’re lucky.”
“You can feel all that?” Frank asked, and at Matt’s nod, “How much do you know?”
“I can tell you what you had for lunch two days ago,” Matt said.
Frank’s laugh came out laced through with pain. “Well, that makes one of us.”
“It had garlic,” Matt told him.
“Oh, it had garlic,” Frank repeated sarcastically, and, in his best New Yorker accent, “I’m Eye-talian. I had so much growing up it’s probably just what I smell like. What did you have, Irishman? Boiled potato?”
“Nothing wrong with a boiled potato,” Matt said with a half-smile. “Food was hard for me after the accident. Everything tasted—too much. It was overwhelming.”
“No, garlic, huh?” Frank asked. “That’s a real tragedy, Red.”
Matt bit his lip to keep himself from laughing and fucking up the stitches. “I can have it now,” he said. “It just took me awhile to dull my sense of taste enough to enjoy food like a normal person. Even when I was in college, my favorite all-nighter food was plain, cold pasta right out of the fridge.”
“Ugh,” Frank said in disgust, and pointed in a finger in Matt’s face. “I want you to know that telling me that is a hate crime.”
He snorted. “I can tell you on authority, that’s not what a hate crime is.”
“Well, I hated it,” Frank said defiantly, crossing his arms.
It had to be the oldest joke in the book, and one of the worst, but Matt still laughed in surprise as he tied off another stitch. He touched fingers to Frank’s thigh to brace his leg and the wound and felt his body like a diagram in his head.
“His bones were different,” he said pensively. “I should’ve known he wasn’t you.”
Frank went quiet for a minute, breathing evenly against the stitches. “Different how?”
“Broken at different times, in different places. Healed differently,” Matt explained. “And his joints. They were a little older than us.”
“Yeah, I noticed,” Frank said ruefully. He drew in a breath and asked, “Do you dye your hair?”
It was so out-of-left-field that Matt almost dropped the needle. “No?”
“His was a different color, a lot lighter than yours. Blonde, almost,” Frank said. “You think he dyed his hair?”
“No, dyed hair smells different. Mine was lighter when I was a baby, but I was one of those kids, it grew in darker as I got older,” Matt said as he remembered—photographs blurry in his memory. “Is that how you knew he wasn’t me?”
“Nah, I knew ‘cause he kissed me and told me he loved me,” Frank said, and Matt could hear he meant it with levity, an inside joke to let them move past the night’s weirdness, but it didn’t quite come out that way once his words met the air.
Matt forced a smile he didn’t really mean, stuck there between Frank and the unavoidable awareness that he must have last heard that from his dead wife. And as for the last person Matt had said in to in the same way other-Matt had meant, well. He didn’t know Frank’s particular brand of horror, had never had a wife and kids in the first place, and couldn’t imagine what it was like to see them mowed down in front of you. But he did have his fair share of tragedy and dead lovers, and he’d accepted that the life he lived might not have room left for someone to share it. The other Matt did, though. The other Matt, despite losing Foggy and the blood on his hands, was happy. He finished the last of the stitches and wrapped a fresh bandage around Frank’s thigh with his tongue thick in his mouth.
“Ok, you’re done,” he said, and went to stand, but Frank caught his wrist before he could. Frank caught him and held him, and Matt didn’t pull away, Frank’s fingers right over the pulse he had to feel racing.
When Frank spoke, his voice came out gravel-rough. “Thanks,” he said. “You should go up front. I’m gonna, uh, scare up a clean pair of pants.”
Frank let him go, then, and Matt mumbled something in assent and fled. He folded himself back into the passenger seat and tried very hard not to listen to Frank rummaging around in the back.
It started to rain just before they reached the bridge. In the seat next to him, Red tilted his ear towards the roof like he was listening to it and let out an audible sigh.
“It’s raining?” he asked, a bit unnecessarily.
“Yeah, it’s really coming down,” Frank replied as he switched on the windshield wipers. “So, uh. Anywhere in Manhattan?” he asked, now that they were getting close.
The flashes of the passing streetlights showed Red’s face thin-lipped and grim, and he didn’t answer.
“Can you—can you take me home?” Red asked, like it cost him.
“Yeah,” Frank said. What did he think? “Of course.”
Red nodded his thanks. “I’m sorry, it’s in Hell’s Kitchen, I know it’s out of your way.”
“It’s not a problem,” Frank reassured him, and then something clicked—what a cascade of falling water would do to someone who navigated by sound and smell and touch. “It’s the rain, isn’t it?” And, when Red stayed quiet, guessed, “Messes with your stuff?”
“It’s harder,” Red admitted. “Makes everything fuzzy. Most people stay home when it’s raining, so it’s never really been an issue.”
Frank sat with that for a minute. “Ok, so if someone pulled a fire alarm and set off the sprinkler system, that’d take you out of commission?”
He got his answer when Red shuddered visibly. “It would make things considerably more difficult.”
Suddenly, Frank wanted to take back every time he’d called Red a liar or a coward for the mask he wore. “I’m not gonna tell anyone,” he said. “Who you are, what you can do.”
“I—thank you,” Red responded. “I didn’t think you would, but thanks.”
“Yeah,” Frank said absently. If he did, it’d be as good as killing him, only a matter of time before someone used the information to their advantage. Someone like Fisk.
That hit Frank in the conclusion he’d come to at A.I.M.’s headquarters and had kept himself from contemplating ever since he met up with Red again, lest he pick up on some quirk of his heartbeat or breath. He was going to kill Wilson Fisk. How, and when, were questions he couldn’t answer yet, but Frank-2 had been right when he said Nelson was a good guy, and he’d waited too long to do what needed doing. And in Frank’s experience, Nelson & Murdock came as a package deal. Nelson, he was pretty sure, neither liked him nor shared his partner’s savior complex, but he treated Frank fairly all the same. He didn’t owe him, not for the basic decency of professionalism. But Frank couldn’t ignore a flashing warning sign of his impending death, either.
Whether to tell Red, though, was a goddamn conundrum. If he knew that Frank was going after Fisk, he might try to stop him, but if he knew why, he might hesitate long enough to let him pull the trigger, and Frank was still figuring that part out when Red spoke.
“You’re thinking about Fisk.”
Frank jumped. “Please don’t tell me you’re psychic.”
“I can’t read minds, Frank,” he said. “Murdock & McDuffie. I heard your heart when the other me said that. You were interested, but you weren’t surprised. Yours told you, didn’t he?”
“Yeah,” Frank admitted. No point in lying to a human lie detector.
“It should have happened already,” Red told him. “So whatever you’re planning, don’t.”
“Ok,” Frank said easily.
Red smiled at him sharply. “You’re lying.”
“Is that what my heart says?”
“I don’t need to listen to your heart. You’d never give in that quickly.”
True enough, but he’d thought Red would pick up the concept of plausible deniability when Frank dumped it in his lap. “I won’t go after Fisk,” he lied. “So, y’know. You don’t have to stop me.”
“Don’t make me,” Red countered—so much for that. “Nothing that happened there has to happen here.”
Right. Nothing, Frank thought, and didn’t like the way that felt sour.
I love you, the other Red had said.
It wasn’t the special occasions and grand gestures you missed when you lost someone. When Frank thought of Maria, he didn’t remember their wedding day or birthdays or their anniversary on the years he was home. It was the quiet moments, her hand rubbing his back as she passed, his kiss to her cheek. The hush of dawn when they woke up together before the kids ran in and jumped on the bed. The quick, casual, love-yous when she left for work in the morning or to run an errand. He’d managed to half-forget it and let the pain dull with time, right up until the alternate-universe version of the most aggravating person he knew tore the old wound right open. And he didn’t know which was worse: the haunting reminder of the past he’d lost forever, or the future just out of reach.
Possibilities ranged in Frank’s head as Red told him where to turn down the rainy streets. He’d drop Red off and forget about this, and he’d someday swallow the bile in his throat when he saw Red happy with someone else, and continue on like he always had. Or one of the stupid, dangerous things Red did would get him killed, and Frank would spend the rest of his life wondering exactly what he’d lost. Or they’d fuck a few times to release the tension, and then they’d drift apart or Frank would do something to piss Red off and end it before it began, and Frank would carry around the nagging feeling like he hadn’t lived up to some assigned potential. Or they’d fall into something like what their doubles had, and part of Frank would be scared every waking moment of any of the horrible things that could happen to Red, terrified out of his wits.
They rolled to a stop next to an old walk-up right in the middle of Hell’s Kitchen, so on the nose for Red that Frank wanted to laugh. “Let me guess,” he said. “Top floor, rooftop access?”
“Um. Yeah,” Red said carefully, like he feared some ulterior motive.
“Makes sense,” Frank commented. “I don’t care how good you are, you go climbing up and down the fire escape every night, the neighbors are gonna notice.”
Red rewarded him with a smile. “Actually, that was one of the reasons I picked it.” Then he smoothed a hand down his front and said, “Uh, your coat—”
“Keep it,” Frank said. “I’ll get it from you later.” It’d get him up the stairs without any of those neighbors noticing the suit.
“Thank you, Frank,” Red said, fingers clutching the ends of the trenchcoat’s sleeves. “And, uh, thanks for the ride.”
“Anytime,” Frank said without thinking, and then wanted to kick himself—God, this whole thing was making him dumb. “I guess you would’ve found your way back sooner or later.”
“Not in time for opening statements. Foggy’ll smother me in my sleep if I miss,” Red told him.
Frank raised an eyebrow. “You got court tomorrow?”
“Yeah. At nine,” Red confirmed.
He glanced at the clock on his dashboard. “It’s almost five.”
Red groaned. “Don’t remind me.”
“When do you sleep?” Frank asked.
Bleakly, Red laughed. “I mostly don’t.” He looked for a moment like he was about to say something else, but in the end seemed to think better of it and took hold of the door handle instead.
Frank thought again of their doubles, of how they weren’t their doubles, and nothing that happened there had to happen here. He didn’t know what the future held. But he did know the jitter of nerves he felt when he worked a job likely to bring him in contact with Red, the apprehension he always had waiting for him to show up that now looked more like anticipation. He knew now that if anyone went after Red or hurt him in a serious way, Frank was probably going to tear out their kneecaps before killing them, and his half-baked plans to go after Fisk weren’t entirely about not-owing Nelson. He liked how Red looked in his trenchcoat—he wasn’t a small man by any stretch, but Frank was a little wider in the shoulders, and it made the sleeves brush down almost to his fingertips. He liked working with Red when they could agree, and he liked making him laugh.
And not doing anything because of what he knew was as much of a decision as doing something was.
“Hey, Matt,” Frank said, and went Red turned, pulled him close by the coat’s collar and kissed him just once before shoving him back.
Red sat braced against the door open-mouthed and stunned just long enough for Frank’s heart to stop, and his mouth had felt nothing like Red-2’s. “That was, uh—” he began.
“Something to think about,” Frank said quickly.
A slow, wide smile spread across Red’s face, and Frank’s heart started beating again. “Ok. I’ll think about it.”
He let himself out of the car and darted through the rain to his building, and Frank smiled, too, all the way across the bridge and back to his safehouse to sleep.