The thing about Frank is that he did not have a childhood.
Which is not to say he was forced into an adult role early on, or that his daemon got stuck extraordinarily early on, or that he was an old soul--what he means, what his daemon means when she voices it to Idris much later on, is that he did not have one because no recollection of it existed. Neither he nor his daemon have any but a thimbleful of memories, and those memories are ragged, contextless, so slippery and strange he doesn't know if they're true or not. Did they really read The Tyger? Did he really beat up some kid for bullying another one? Did he really live in New York City? Was he ever in a church pew?
They don't know. He and her, they don't know for sure. He remembers vaguely thinking that dad wouldn't be pleased when he had finished beating the snot out of the whimpery little bully, and that he had to get home or mom would get him in trouble when he was in a church pew (not during a service, even), but he doesn't remember anything else. Not what they looked like, or even what their names were. Nothing. He and his daemon have absolutely nothing at all to try and understand the few memories that stayed behind, besides some scant physical evidence of something that happened to her and him, and a stray thought that he hopes they won't find out his real name when he signs up for the Marines.
(Said scant physical evidence is: she is always missing a part of her ear. She is often scarred, no matter what form; when she settles it's with a whole network of scars that make her look like she's been dead several times. She can go far enough away from him that he can't hear her and the pain is familiar and tolerable. He does not like being around people. He does not have crushes. He is not afraid of people, but knows they are all monsters and threats. He likes it when it is quiet and he is holding a gun and a book. It's pathetic, he knows, but he doesn't try and use it to solve for the rest of the equation. If he wasn't supposed to remember whatever it was then who was he to refuse that kind of gift?)
The first day of his life, as far as Frank is concerned, is the day his daemon settled, and it was prophetic that she settled into something that was completely alien to both of them. Athena--he names her after the fact--had looked down at herself and looked back up, and had said in that way that only he heard, "I have no clue what this is, but this is it."
Frank had looked back at her and been a little disappointed, because he thought she was a dog and while dogs were good, good to pet and ruffle their ears and follow to dumpsters, he wasn't a dog person he hadn't thought--but he'd also been confused, because no dog had that kind of eye, and when he and her turned and headed out of the shitty little neighborhood they lived in and out into the world, her shoulders moved and his hindbrain itched, said predator, said too close, even though he'd never been scared of dogs.
But Frank accepted it, as did Athena, and she found a name for herself and he found a name for himself (close enough to Francis Castiglione that he'd automatically answer to it, far enough away to be truth, because Francis Castiglione did not exist) and he signed up for the Marines and wrote down mutt as his daemon species on the intake paperwork and neither of them flinched at the needle of daemon blood taken by a chimpanzee daemon and that was that.
Welcome to your life, Frank.
The thing about Maria is that she had a good childhood, an idyllic one, and it didn't hurt her or make her the way she was in the ways that people think.
It was frustrating to try and explain to people, partially because she knew that actual other people did have bad childhoods and she always wanted to point the nosy assumption-happy jackasses to them instead, partially because she knows most of the reason people think she had a bad childhood is because she's a vicious, bloodthirsty woman and because she has five parents and only one is straight, and partially because if you denied having a bad childhood people took it as confirmation.
Maria knew her childhood was very weird and probably would have been bad for someone else. She started out with Mama, her adoptive mother, Dada, her adoptive father, Bibi, her biological mother (who was so called because Dada and Mama called her baby, because Bibi and Mama and Dada were all sort of married to each other by the time Maria had conscious memories), and then later Dada had had a divorce with Mama when Maria was about ten and gone on to then fall in love with and get sort-of married to and bring in Bobby and Eddie, who were a woman and a man who became Maria's third mother and second father, and their four-year-old triplets Jamy, Jenny, and Jilly, who as adults became instead Carmen, Jen, and Jillian.
The whole unit had ended up living together on the farm-cum-wilderness-cabin that Bibi, Mama and Dad had first built together with just them and Maria in mind because of financial concerns, though Maria hadn't known it because she was eleven at the time, and it had been glorious. Far from being jealous of Bobby and Eddie's children or being confused over Bibi and Mama's continuing and evolving relationship or being resentful of her father for deciding that apparently he couldn't just date four people at once, Maria had been delighted. All of a sudden she had even more Adults who were obligated to take her seriously and listen to her talk about criminal psychology and give her hugs when she needed them and help her dissect mouse corpses they found when the coyotes didn't eat them all the way, and she gleefully took advantage of Bobby and Eddie's desire to win her over to weasel out of chores and beg for cookies for two entire years before Bibi finally put an end to it.
Having little sisters (Maria had known, with a child's wisdom, that Jamy was not a boy at all, not even a little bit, Jamy was like Mama instead) had also been the greatest thing in her life. Suddenly Maria not only had even more children to play with, she had ones she could boss around and use to play tricks on their parents together, and they were eternally impressed by the ferocious forms Idris could summon up--he could be a crocodile in the bathtub, or a mountain goat to bash down a sapling, or a wolf to howl at the moon and freak their parents out into making them all extra hot chocolate. Maria loved the attention, and Idris likewise bathed in it.
Bibi was the only who worried the most, insisted on family therapy and codewords for going out in public and had long walks with Maria and Idris where Bibi would talk about whatever Maria wanted to and Bibi's bright eagle daemon Ion would interrogate Idris about his feelings. Then again, Maria had always known that Bibi was the paranoid one, the cautious one as Mama and Dada said, the one who childproofed the cabin and blew air horns in case of coyotes and screened all the private tutors to ferret out the ones who'd try and blackmail them with proof of their illegal relationship to get money. Bibi took care of things like the Mormons who came knocking (she answered the door naked, covered in fake blood, and would have Ion swoop down on their daemons) or the two times CPS was called on the family (she hired a lawyer and let them come in and see the medical records for all the children and that they didn't live in drugged-out filth and forced the social workers to get out out out) or the time when Maria broke her leg (got her to the emergency room by herself, because she didn't need an ambulance and Bibi refused to give out their address without good reason).
But nothing happened. Maria was never traumatized; she didn't worry that her parents didn't love her, or fret about being a brat sometimes, or dissociate. She read dozens of books every week and devoured knowledge happily, getting a beautiful SAT score on the first try and spending family therapy sessions trying to make the therapist crack up.
However, when Idris settled while Maria, fifteen, was applying to colleges, suddenly all her parents were worried, because at first it looked like Idris had settled as a dog, and a lab at that (which was bizarre, Maria did not like serving other people, sure she was loyal and dogged and friendly but she wasn't--that, not like how Dada was with his rat terrior daemon), but then Idris moved and they all knew that wasn't no goddamned dog, dogs did not do that stalk or have those eyes. Dada's rat terrier and Mama's orange housecat and Bobby's prairie dog and Eddie's woodpecker and Bibi's eagle all took notice right away of how not-normal this daemon was, how none of them could identify it, and they lost their shit.
The triplets were unconcerned. They felt it was totally obvious that Maria's daemon would be something big and scary and full of teeth but also shiny. In their little triplet-and-Maria-language they shrugged their shoulders and moved on.
Her parents even had the audacity to go and insist on taking Maria to a daemon specialist clinic, pay thousands of dollars out of pocket for a DNA identification which turned out to be useless and then even more hundreds for a phenotyping by a canid daemon expert, who mostly threw up his useless hands and said it was probably some dog hybrid, and continued to flip their shit for years whenever the subject came up. Meanwhile, Maria felt actually close to traumatized and shut down, her and Idris refusing to discuss it with anyone as they turned themselves towards college and ventured out into the world.
But as good as her childhood was--and it was good, no denying it--there was also a fear that shaped it in odd ways that Maria didn't put together until she was an adult. The way that all of her dentists and pediatricians and tutors were women. The way that Bibi's Ion would herd Idris away from female daemons with little nips if necessary. The way that Mama sometimes looked sideways at Eddie, at Dada, and how even though Maria's parents were full of woo-woo superstitions and believed in the beautiful nature of the human body there was an absence of male nudity in the house in any way. Bobby could go and pull up carrots in just a bra and some shorts and it was unremarkable, but the children hadn't even known that men had nipples until they watched porn as teenagers because Eddie and Dada never had their shirts off. The way that Bibi refused to let them go trick-or-treating or play in kid community sports or sing songs about Santa always watching. The way that even shopping at Costco, Maria and the triplets were never allowed anywhere alone around anyone else, not even to the end of the aisle without an adult.
It's when Idris and Maria are in college and drinking casually with a friend of theirs when she figures it all out. Her friend's furry little ferret daemon is drunk enough that he asks Idris why Maria was so baffled by male nipples--she'd laughed about how tiny they were in the movie they'd just seen-- and Maria laughed and chugged another mouthful of beer and explained, "My dads weren't allowed to have their shirts off around the kids."
"Why not?" the ferret daemon asked.
Maria giggled. "Because my moms thought maybe they'd rape us."
At that, the ferret daemon stopped wriggling around like a snake and sat up and his human gasped. "What?"
Maria shrugged. "Bibi--my mom--she was always afraid of it. So were the other moms. They always were. Not, like, afraid afraid, not like they really thought that my dad would do it! But more like, you know, how we're afraid of coyotes and bears and shit. You lock the door so they don't come in, but they're always in the forest, and if you don't lock the door they will come in. You know? Or they won't, but if they do you'll feel real stupid about it and also, they might eat your kids."
Her friend was worried about her ever since then, and Maria always resented it. As far as she could tell, everyone's lives were shaped by it too, just in different and possibly stupider ways. Bibi had never tried to make her only wear long skirts or taught them 'stranger danger', but she had damn well made sure that every time Bobby or Eddie or Mama or Dada or Bibi did anything that the children didn't like then at least one of the kids would rat them out to the others, and she had always given them five minutes of privacy for every doctor's appointment and therapy session to say anything that they couldn't say with their parents there. Sure, some of the other things were silly--Maria never understood the rationale for the no-trick-or-treating-- but so were the biweekly tarot card readings and the rooms adorned with colored crystals.
Maria ends up signing up, later on, for a project to identify her daemon and grins when she gets the results back after having the picture and measurements passed around to all the best exotic-daemon-identifying experts on the planet. Her parents still don't understand, think Idris is sharp-toothed and half-wild because Maria is damaged, or was lonely, or something, and it makes her roll her eyes. No, she's always been strong and big and fierce, and only gotten more and more in the safe haven of their little cabin and their mixed family. Start out strong and big and get stronger and bigger, only increasing, no pre-breaking necessary.
The thing about Maria-and-Frank is that when they meet, both of them are waiting. Maria is slowly climbing the ranks of the FBI while getting a Master's in criminal psychology, studying the connection between serial killers and ideologies of racism and misogyny, and Frank is being put through so much specialist training that he wants to climb the walls. The Marines, as it turns out, is thrilled that he's intelligent (and, to his and Athena's surprise, he's intelligent) and wants to sharpen his mind first and her teeth later, train him to be a Terminator or something. So they meet at, actually, a poetry recital by a friend of Maria's and an acquaintance of Frank's. He's technically majoring in military history, and it's fascinating, but he's also taking a steady little unofficial sub-minor of poetry classes and has come to listen to a few epics being done properly.
He sees the daemon of the woman in the only available seat and his eyes are glued to him. The daemon looks, at first glance, like a dog (like a lab, he can hear Athena sniff disdainfully) but he's not, he's--something lanky and dangerous, something with sharp teeth, and Athena goes up to the daemon and sniffs him, ignoring every single rule about personal space and politeness. The daemon looks up, wary but interested, and Frank can hardly focus on the poetry at all.
After the recital's over and people are filtering out, Athena speaks up, which is so rare that Frank almost jumps. She doesn't talk to anyone, daemon or person.
"What are you?" she asked bluntly.
The other daemon looked Athena up and down and then stood up, dramatically stretching first. "What are you? I'm Idris."
"No, I mean--are you a dog? You don't look like a dog."
Idris tilted his head. "You don't think so?"
"No, you're not," Athena said, quite certain, and started to get impatient. "Dogs don't look like that."
Idris gave a big yawn, which cemented both Athena's conviction. Dogs didn't yawn like that at all, not even a little bit. "What are you?" she repeated, stalking closer.
Idris looked unperturbed. "I'll show you mine if you show me yours," he offered, and then said, calculatingly, "But you don't know yours, do you? So let's meet up again, does tomorrow work for you? Maybe around lunchtime, at the patio tables, not the cafeteria ones. We'll compare and see, yeah?"
Athena was taken aback. She didn't--but-- and then she made a quick decision. "Yes, tomorrow. Noon. On the patio," and she took a few steps into the darkness of the hall, and Frank blinked at the person attached to Idris.
She had a large nose and a square jaw and thick red hair that was so, so bright compared to her pale brown skin scattered with freckles. She was so beautiful it made Frank's breath draw sharply in, and he cataloged her automatically (student, not a fighter, early twenties, shorter than him but with maybe forty to sixty pounds on him, wearing a short blue skirt and a t-shirt for some play called Ion) even as he stared at her.
She smiled at him. "I'm Maria," she said.
"Frank," he said back automatically. "Noon tomorrow? At the patio." And he turned and left with Athena, going back to the dorms the Marines had put him in, a little stunned.
Noon tomorrow turns out to be one of the best time of Frank's life.
Maria and Idris show up before he does, sipping a root beet and casually munching on what appears to be a pretzel with guacamole on it. Athena trots right over to Idris and stays standing while Frank comes and sits down silently.
"So," Idris and Maria say in unison, and then they laugh, "Jinx!"
Maria then continues, "So, phenotyping your daemon--I'm assuming that the army or the Marines or the air force did the DNA tests and they don't know what it is but they don't really care unless it's a chipmunk or something--but instead of DNA testing, I'm going to phenotype her, if that's alright?"
It's both the air force or army and the if that draw them up short. Something feels--important about that, different than when the Marines doctors said 'if' and he knew that their 'if' was superfluous, was a polite order, and not something possible to be refused. But Maria's, he thinks, is real, and that's why Athena trots over to Maria and simply stands up at attention.
Maria smiles politely, and Idris takes over. "Can you straighten out?" he asks Athena, and asks her to take up different poses while he paws over her and sniffs her and looks her up and down, and Maria does too, with intense interest.
Finally she straightens out and brings up something on a laptop she pulls out of a bag, muttering back and forth to Idris. They aren't speaking even in complete phrases, and Frank waits in calm silence.
"Ah-hah!" she finally says and turns it around to show him, and there's a picture of something that looks almost exactly like Athena, except she's darker black and has a thinner muzzle. She put her front paws on the table and stares intently. "See, now I suspected this, but I had to check--Athena is a wolfdog, I think, like Idris! She's just a rare cross like he is. See, this one wolfdog is a cross between a bully breed mutt--sorry, colloquially a pitbull--and a wolfdog who was mostly wolf, though I suspect Athena is a cross between a pure wolf and a pitbull. And then this other wolfdog, see," and the flicks pictures and there's one that looks almost precisely like Idris, except Idris has mostly gray fur with some black markings like a husky, "This one is a verified wolf and labrador retriever cross. So Athena and Idris are wolfdogs, and that's amazing," and she's grinning brightly. "I don't know anyone else who's even heard of a wolfdog daemon, unless they're really into exotic daemon species, and there's about four recorded in history that I know of."
Frank gazes at her and then smiles for a second, and then says, "What do they mean?" because he thinks he knows what it means for Athena, but he likes this Maria, likes hearing her talk and explain things, and Athena very much likes Idris and then does something completely unexpected: she flops, actually flops on her back underneath him and lets him, bemused, lean down to lick her muzzle and sniff her and sit warmly next to her, nails clicking as they get comfortable.
"Well, daemons' meaning depends heavily on who a person is, and the context of their culture," Maria says slowly. "But, generally speaking, wolves are usually for warriors who come home and be farmers--you know, warriors with kids and things like that, soldiers sometimes--and dogs can mean...a lot of things. They don't always mean submissiveness," she adds irritably. "They can mean willingness to hunt, and depending on the breed more specific things--pitbulls are traditionally good with children because they're stoic, have high pain tolerance, and supposed to be friendly to humans, and labradors have high pain tolerance, stubbornness, ability to work and keep going, and are not scared of guns or cold water.
"And wolfdogs specifically are more dangerous to humans than either dogs or wolves--or even coyotes! Because they're not scared of humans or urbanization and are also not scared of murdering the shit out of them. Hybrids, though...well, Gloria Anzaldúa pretty famously had a hybrid cat daemon, a liger I think they call it, and she wrote dozens of books on its symbolism and how it embodied Mestizaje in its entirety, but in a lot of other speculation they do tend to show up in people who have very 'dual' natures," and here she's using fingerquotes. "Transracial adoptees, bicultural children--especially if they're bicultural, biracial and bilingual--people who are bigender or bisexual, and people who are sort of a mess of contradictions."
"Like you," Frank says, and grins when she turns and he's right on the money, given her face.
"People think you're harmless and he's a dog and you're gonna be a maid or a nanny or some bullshit," he says. "And you're harmless because you're not some psycho killer cop. But you're not harmless. You're in the FBI."
Maria stares at him, and then grins wider and wider, and then she opens up her mouth and Frank feels himself calmly, easily, irrevocably, fall in love.
The thing about Frank is that Maria likes him in ways she didn't even know she could like a person.
He's quiet, for one thing, which she thought would bother her, and in most people she thinks it would. But Frank isn't quiet because he expects her to read his mind, and he doesn't struggle against his quietness or try to pretend he's not, or anything. He's quiet because he just doesn't speak all that often unless something gets him going or is itching in his throat. And when he talks it's about something good or interesting or important, something to make Maria laugh or fix her problem that she wants advice with or make her feel better about something shitty.
He's also reliable. If he says he'll be somewhere at nine in the morning, he will fucking be there at nine. He won't try to make it or probably make it or be there give or take five minutes, he will be there at nine and say nothing if she's running late because Idris put her shoes back wrong last night before they went to bed. If he says he'll so something, it'll get done, regardless of if he can or can't do it. If he says something's happening, he gives an estimate as to how bullshit the information that says this is happening is, and he apologizes for other people lying to him and therefore making him imperfectly reliable.
There's so many other great things about Frank--he doesn't complain about things that aren't her fault to her, basically at all unless she brings them up, he listens to what she says (which means he puts together the facts and general shape of her family when none of her friends, colleagues, or bosses do), he doesn't look at her as if she's always sexy or always should be--but in a way that finds her to be beautiful even when she also looks like crap because she's hungover and wearing sweatpants and stale makeup--and he doesn't do Dumb Man Things. Meaning he doesn't grunt like a herniating gorilla when he lifts weights, he doesn't ever hit on other women or even flirt with them, he doesn't act shocked when her golden glitter eyelids are makeup or her breasts primarily saggy bags of fat, he doesn't mime being a literal helpless infant when it's his turn to do chores (he's actually much better at them than her, and happier to do them because her standard of cleanliness is lower than his), and he doesn't try and give her little 'advice' about shit that she doesn't want advice about. He might not actually vent back to her about problems he doesn't want help with, but he understands the principle. He doesn't feel the need to have opinions about every little topic (that's Maria's job) or explain to her how everything works (again, that's Maria's job). Some of her friends swear that he can't be a man, he's trans and in denial or agender or a space alien or something, and Maria...disagrees.
He's cognizant of the fact that he is tall and fucking built, that he is a brick shithouse and instinctively scares most women and many children and men, and he doesn't ever pretend that that isn't real. He doesn't approach strange women or stand close to them, ever. He doesn't do the little 'games' that men sometimes do when they back you into a corner against the fridge, or remind you of how they could really hurt you by overpowering you and then make it into a joke by tickling or kissing you, or forcing you to hug them so that you couldn't even feel scared by it, or randomly picking you up. He never does anything even remotely of the sort, and it makes Maria feel...not just calm around him but deeply, deeply reassured. He could probably fight a bear--scratch that, he could 100% fight a bear-- but he wouldn't ever be the bear to her. If that makes any sense.
Frank also has a wry little sense of humor, makes terrible puns and what Maria can only think of as dad jokes. He likes poetry and can recite it for her on cue and it doesn't even feel corny. His favorite movies are frequently old comedies or else horror movies, because those are also what he thinks of as comedies, and nature documentaries. There's a secret little core of him that he doesn't even acknowledge, where he likes little kids and dogs and cats and sings along to '70s pop music (and Athena howls along to it too).
And..he's not just okay with her daemon, like many are or pretend to be, he actually likes Idris. Her own parents see Idris's big teeth as a sign, sometimes, that they fucked up on sheltering her, and Bibi in particular sometimes gets weepy drunk about how she wanted Maria to never have to be dangerous, and it frustrates her. Most people get a little unsettled by him, because he looks mostly dog but also not, so he's uncanny to them, scary in a secret way. Some people take it as an excuse to think of her as a faithful servant, or whatever, and that gets them a chunk taken out of their daemon more often than not, or a snarl when nobody else can hear it.
But even her FBI colleagues who have more dangerous daemons--for fuck's sake, her boss has a goddamn hyena as his, he has no room to talk about it--sometimes speculate on Idris, and that's almost worse. Because when they just think she's going to be a serial killer one day that scares most people away, but for FBI profilers-in-training that means they gossip about her dreadfully abusive childhood or if she grew up in a cult or is secretly a second-generation immigrant and she wants to scream, sometimes. Meanwhile, all Frank does is say that Idris is beautiful, and Athena dances with him and plays with him and licks his muzzle and shows him her belly almost every day.
Frank's also just plain hot, in a way Maria didn't think she liked, and he doesn't really flaunt it so much as show it off in private for her, only her, picking up her dresser or letting her see his abs as he towels off, and he's...well. Maria is very picky about sex, she knows, way pickier than most people, and frankly neither she nor Idris has any idea why. So when she says do you like sex where you're the following the instructions? And Frank looks at her with a palpable relief and says that's the best fucking kind and she smirks and pounces, it means that's he's far, far hotter than he was before. Sometimes she won't even need to walk him through what to do, he'll just know, and pick up her foot and kiss the high heels and then the toes and massage it while her whole body rolls and rolls with pleasure, or he'll pick her up when she wants to be and holds her up to eat her against the shower wall.
("I'm kind of too fat for that, aren't I?" she pointed out once, alarmed.
Frank's brow furrowed. "Anyone who says that is just fucking weak," he'd replied, and lifted her with visible effort but no strain and no whining. And she had grinned and yanked his hair.)
They don't really talk about it in the ways that she learned how to talk about it in undergrad or on the internet. Frank has a thing about putting himself in the same category as other human beings--he sometimes gets pissed off when someone even calls him a fucking boyfriend to Maria simply because other men exist who are also boyfriends, so--and also about subcultures and subcultural language, so she doesn't try to make him use weird words like 'kink negotiation' or 'red light'. Instead, she tells him very firmly that if he doesn't explicitly and obviously make it clear how much he likes or doesn't like any particular sex act then she will just plain not have sex with him at all, and she enforces this ferociously, getting up and putting her clothes back on when he waffles or tries to pretend to be into something for her sake.
("There's a difference between liking something, liking that I like it, and disliking it and 'putting up with it'," she said as she put on a bra and a shirt and sat back down, carefully not leaving or rejecting. "I'm not a bad smell you have to 'put up with', Frank."
Idris was still nuzzling Athena, tangled in that cuddly canid way with her. Maria wasn't mad, she was setting boundaries and showing how mad she would be if it happened again.)
And she loves how much he loves praise, how he can take it when he's earned it, how he strives to improve all the time, how he's going for a personal fucking best so much she loves it. He comes up with new ways to be what she wants, he squats while holding her and kisses her neck and worships her soft tummy rolls and firm, large arms and traces over her collarbones like he's seeing the face of God, and she never ever fails to reward, praise, feedback, adore him. They vow to cherish each other and god damn, she makes sure to keep up her end of the bargain.
Frank is just plain comfortable in a way Maria hadn't thought she was looking for. He is stable, stubborn, and strong; he's like old-style jeans, or thick thick comfy sweatpants, or a really way-too-big hoodie that covers you up completely. He's like the woods she grew up in, the owls hooting at night--full of white noise and safety and familiar, known, honest danger. She adores him.
(She wants to have children with him. Idris and her look at each other and they're so, so taken.)
The two real big downsides to Frank, however, are that first of all he is completely fucking insane in ways that will likely never be treated, medicated, or psychotherapied away (or even could be, honestly), and second of all the way that people look at her and him and make offensive, sexist, racist assumptions about them because of who he is.
The crazy part--well, okay, a lot of Frank's insanity is stuff Maria actually likes, such as the fact that Athena talks even less than Frank and never does the friendly nose-touch except with little kids' daemons and Idris, or the fact that he can't steal her parents because he flatly told them he doesn't have any goddamn parents and would like to keep it that way, thank you so much, and a lot more of it is stuff that's just neutral, like how he doesn't really bother with his appearance or his compulsive need to always, always drink coffee, or his tendency towards a meat-and-vegetables diet when he has a choice in it and a stash of hoarded food wherever he lives.
But there are bad parts to it, like the nights he doesn't sleep at all, or the way Athena can walk way too far away from him when Maria knows for a fact that they're not separated, or how he just..doesn't..have an entire childhood.
("Gone. Like ice-cream scooped out of a tub."
"I don't want to talk about it.")
Or the ways that he won't realize something is totally fucked up and horrible and will just say it like it's normal or something, and it will catch Maria off-guard and stab her right in the gut. She can cope with horrible shit when she's on the job because it's her job to deal with it and it's in a context where she goes to work, does shit to actually help try and solve the problem or at least alleviate the after-effects, and then comes home and strips in the doorway and immediately eats a clementine and washes it all away with the simple sense memory.
However, when they're shopping in the supermarket and she's looking for Nutella and makes a joke about bisexuals being greedy, she does not expect her partner to nonchalantly come out with some random shit like "if you cheat on me, it won't be because you're bisexual, it'll be because I deserve it," which, what, and second of all, what the fuck.
Or when they're having sex and she laughs and tickles him and kisses him on his nose and he abruptly freezes up completely and she has to get off of him and let Idris eventually bite Athena to make her respond again and he just...insists that it's fine, that it didn't happen, that he's okay, and that it's totally fucking fine. Which again, what.
Or even--and this time is special--the time she accidentally tazes him (it's a long, long story involving the week before her thesis is due, a shithead advisor, and way too much Red Bull) and he seems to expect her to be fucking turned on by it, which just...what the fuck, Frank Castle.
(After that they have a long, long discussion which cements her belief that some deeply, deeply evil things happened during Frank's childhood and also that he really really is lucky that he chose Maria to be his wife/dom/girlfriend/equal, because he genuinely believes in giving himself over completely as his entire love language, in total devotion to his mistresses, life and all. And it's...intense, and not something Maria would have thought she'd want, but now she's got it, she never wants to not-have it ever again.)
They end up having to talk about it in very indirect ways, or with letter writing, and they end up doing things like making contingency plans for if it gets worse and what happens if he gets truly crazy in a way she doesn't know how to handle, and they also end up broaching the conversational topic of how they're not going to pass on the crazy to their kids, and that one actually hurts them both; Idris and Athena don't even touch for the whole of it until the end, when they're sobbing and holding each other.
(They agree on several things, including that Frank will let her tickle the damn children and that she will let him take them trick-or-treating, and that neither of them will shelter their children from the horrors of male nipples.)
The second thing is..ultimately harder to deal with. It sucks, and the problem is that as far as Maria can tell there isn't a whole lot they can actually fucking do about it.
It begins with her family, who are lovely and good parents and ultimately very good people, but who are closeminded in their own ways. None of them actually can wrap their heads around the fact that Maria and Frank are happily monogamous by choice. It's every part they have a problem with, each of them-- Bobby and Eddie always wanted a third and serially dated for one, Mama has always had secondary and tertiary partners when she had time to give to them, Dad went into and out of relationships as easily as milk into coffee, and even paranoid Bibi shrugged at one-night stands, considered them ultimately meaningless.
And it's not exactly that Maria's never thought that a threesome might be nice, especially after they have kids and could use some more babysitters, but first of all Frank is just too fucking good at submitting and she cannot trust that another person won't go drunk on power and take advantage of him, and second of all even the idea would wound him, possibly forever. So she keeps those to private masturbation fantasies and doesn't bother with them at all.
She tries to explain it to them-- "Look, if you really like cherries on sundaes, a lot, but not all the time because they're work and need scheduling and shit, but sometimes, but then you decide to spend the rest of your life with someone who is seriously allergic to cherries, like anaphylaxis-allergic to them, like if they even have them in the air near them they might seriously die and will probably get hypoxia-induced brain damage from them and be traumatized by it and shit, then you just don't have any fucking cherries any more. And it's not a big deal! You still get a whole sundae with hot fudge and everything! It's just that you can't get literally everything you could possibly want out of it."
They're still baffled. Some of them decide that they'll loosen up when they're in a retirement village or something and start getting more adventurous then, and some of her parents feel convinced that Frank's backed her into a corner with it, and some of them just sort of hum and say of course you're happy, dear, and it makes her want to shoot them in the face. It's even worse when two of her sisters are serial cheaters and her parents keep sending them articles on Facebook about poly dating instead of understanding that they're cheaters because they're lazy assholes, not because they're secretly meant to actually be in open relationships and are tormented by it, or something.
But with people outside of her family, there's even more weird bullshit, because at least her family knows that she doesn't do more than at most 30% of the cleaning and 45% of the cooking, and they don't assume that she's subordinate to Frank in any way because of her being..whatever race she actually is. She actually doesn't know, because Bibi is transracially-adopted Mexican and Maria's biological father is either Dad, who is very white (he likes horse racing) or else one of about ten people, most of whom are some combination of Latino, Black, Native American, Samoan, actually-Irish-Irish and Eastern European, and because she ended up with a highly racially ambiguous face and a light brown complexion that nonetheless has freckles and red hair. So it's a big question mark, but that doesn't prevent people from thinking of her husband as being her boss or her sugar daddy or her Green Card sponsor or whatever racist nonsense comes into their heads when they see them together.
(It's worse after they have their kids--Lisa gets read as Exotic sometimes because her hair goes into angelic ringlets like Maria's does when she grows it out, but Junior is even darker than her and people sometimes 'congratulate' Frank on 'adopting those poor children from Africa' and he almost just fucking kills someone the first time. Maria gets security called on her once or twice with Lisa for 'kidnapping' her, people saying she's the nanny or the babysitter, and it makes Idris snarl a deep, deep wolf-snarl whenever they think about it.)
It really sucks, is all, and Maria even gets it at very first from her colleagues when she gets into the BAU, and that almost makes her quit on the fucking spot. Thankfully, they apologize, and Garcia agrees to never ever do any sort of nonsense with Frank's background or know anything about it, so Maria gets to stay working with them, but still. Still.
And despite these downsides, Frank is more than worth it. Maria decides to marry him one late morning when she's lounging in bed, Idris next to her and napping with his paws up, Athena sitting nearby and Frank bringing her a fried egg inside a BLT for brunch. It's very quiet and calm, and she barely needs to even thank him, just kiss her boyfriend, and she wants this, always.
But of course, nothing compares to the epic shitfit that every member of Maria's family throws when she changes her name to Castle.
She flatly refuses to justify it in any way--it's her name, and they can suck the twat right out of her ass if they think their opinions should control her name--and she burns all mail sent to her previous last name, and eventually they get over it.
But it's a long four years.
Frank's first night back after his first deployment is...different.
Athena walks beside him, still wearing some of her protective gear, and Frank kind of just wants to collapse onto the floor of the airport and stay there forever. He doesn't want to deal with how she looks, or people's stares, or their thank-yous, but Maria will be there, Maria and Idris will be there and Idris will gently bite Athena and nuzzle her and she will lick his muzzle and show him her belly and play with him, dumb shit like chasing squirrels and climbing up trees or onto the roof, and Maria will be Maria and pull him out of his shitty moods. He's been in a shitty mood since all the killing stopped and nothing has made a goddamn dent in it.
And there she is, he can see her calmly make her way out to him, Idris trotting over to sniff Athena and he almost sags down into her arms but he can't show any weakness right now, so all he does is take her hand and walk with her out of the way of the crowds and the people and the shiny flourescent lights that are giving him a headache, and she takes him out to the shuttle to the parking lot (apparently, she narrates, literally all the close parking was full, and she really didn't want to get a cab because fuck cabs, honestly) and Athena and Idris neatly press in close during the entire agonizing ride.
The car is the same but cleaner, ready for Idris to herd Athena into the backseat and then climb in after her as the safety bars lock into place, and Maria has a still-cold coke ready for him in the cupholder and a huge dollar burrito that tastes like home. He eats and drinks as she drives, not talking at all, and it is bliss.
She takes him inside, and he copies what she does when she gets back from being Maria Castle, FBI Agent: he strips and heads to the kitchen to eat a fruit (this time, a banana) and then goes upstairs to shower and change and then comes back down to Maria, who is now setting up the television room (separate from the dining room, and much more comfortable and open) to watch, of all the things, The Russians Are Coming! and he takes a deep breath and sits down next to her, lets her lie down half on top of him and hand him a peach cider beer and pretends to be a human being again.
Later that night, when it's very very dark out and it's far too fucking quiet and cold and soft to sleep, he gets up and starts pacing. He can't stop, can't sit down, can't slow down, his thoughts accelerating and he thinking about he needs to leave, leave now, go back and finish the fucking war, and Maria gets out of bed and looks at him sleepily, and god, she's wearing pink pajamas with zebra stripes in heart-shaped patches, and he remembers when she first wore those and he liked them, loved them, sleepily put his hand down the pants when they woke up in the middle of the night from synchronized sex dreams and she called him her good good boy and he didn't feel revulsion or poisonous anger, just love, just relief, and he wants that again.
She seems to understand, gazing at him in the dark, and then nods. "Frank, go do jumping jacks. Athena, go to Idris and lie down."
He opens his mouth to tell her he'll be fine, and she cuts him off. "Frank, shut the fuck up, I don't care whether you should be feeling like that or if you still think I have work in the morning or god-knows-what, now go do jumping jacks, starting now."
"Yes, ma'am," he says with relief and starts. She directs him through jumping jacks and into burpees, lunge-squats, and ending with pushups where she stands on his back and makes him do clapping pushups, which, jesus fuck Maria.
When he's ready, when he can think, she senses it and gets off of him, watches him with her arms folded. "What's got you tied up in a knot?" she asks. "Answer, Frank, or tell me to fuck off."
He's told Maria to fuck off precisely twice and both times were about things to do with the period of his life that didn't happen because he did not exist during it, so he says instead, "I liked killing them," which shocks both him and Athena, because neither of them meant to say it at all.
He's stunned into silence, and Athena takes over. "We liked it. We killed so many of them, Maria, more than half were off the books, a bunch are classified, and we killed them in so many different ways. We stabbed and shot and cut people's heads off and put a spike in the neck and put the head back on so we could get into the hideout without suspicion and I liked it. It was good, it felt good, I didn't hesitate or puke or try to get out of it and I liked it."
She sounds...shocked, but also resigned, and then Maria frowns, and before she can speak Idris does.
"I don't arrange for it, or try to make it happen, or let anyone else know, but when...when the UNSUBs run, or have a gun, or anything, and I get to shoot them, I like it. I like knowing that they're going to live a little less longer, cost a little less money, and that they can't hurt anyone else. I like knowing that I killed them. I like pulling the trigger. Sometimes I come home to you and I think about it and it makes me love you more."
Frank's shocked too, and he shuts up for a good few minutes, just like Maria. They sit and then finally, she says,
"I should have expected this, honestly," and Frank says, "Me too," and then they both laugh, but it's true. Wolves are Mongol's daemons, soldier's daemons, freedom fighter's daemons, Aileen Wuornos's daemon. Wolves are the daemons that rip out throats and don't look back.
Maria continues, "I mean, are you going to go around being a serial killer now, or something? Do I have to invest in trash bags and alligator farms?" and Frank snorts.
"Then I don't see why I should be flipping my shit about this," she says. "You're not allowed to kill anyone here for stupid reasons or in stupid ways, and you know that. And you didn't do anything I'd consider a war crime, probably, so I'm not going to waste my time angsting about it."
Frank stares at her, and then smiles. That's fair.
"Now go walk to the 7-11 and get yourself some coffee and me a chicken caesar salad, at least two varieties of Lean Pockets, and a grape soda," she orders him. "Get yourself some protein too. Be back here before too long or I'll slap your balls around when I sit on your face later."
Frank smiles even wider and gets up, Athena trotting over to be with him. "Yes, ma'am," he says, and sinks into a comfortable mindset, mind oriented around a goal and thus able to construct a narrative with which to exist. "Thank you, ma'am."
Maria stands up and gently cups his skull, kissing him, and it lasts a long time. He loves kissing her, she loves kissing him, and he touches her, her soft butt and her softer belly and her big firm thighs, and god, he missed her.
"You're such a good boy for telling me, and not feeling shitty about it for years," she murmurs. "Such a good boy. Tomorrow I've got an idea for something very intense, and trust me, you'll love it. The day after that, you'll pick three new possible hobbies or passions, and write me essays on why each is a good idea, and I'll help you get started on them, hmm?"
Anticipation zips down his spine, making him feel alive and eager, bright and alert.
She pats his butt, one hand groping at him to torture him just a little bit, and then turns to go back to lying down.
Frank goes and obeys, finally at some fucking peace with himself.
What turns out to be the intense, intense treat is almost impossible to put into words--something sacred and indescribable all at once.
Maria tells him to take a bath, and she and him bathe together with bubbles and oils and salt, and then they wash their daemons and dry them and brush them, and then she and Idris lay down on the floor near their bed and she softly tells Athena to come and lie down with her, and Frank to lie down with Idris.
His heart starts pounding, in anticipation of pain, but he doesn't say fuck off or no or this is fucking stupid, he does it, slowly, falling to his knees and letting the huge soft wolfdog come and lie down with him, touching all his naked skin, and he shakes and shakes, and Athena--the braver one than him by far--almost jumps into Maria's arms, all of her, and she squirms with the sensation just as Frank is frozen still, and it's--so much--beyond so much--it's a circuit, pleasure exponentiated, pleasure beyond pleasure, feeling and intensity and touching each other's souls, stroking their fur and touching their silken floppy ears and their sharp sharp teeth, and it's--he can't-- but he is, he is, and Maria is overcome too, and when they all stop and pull away every single nerve is in perfect harmony, and Frank--
There are no words. But God, he never, ever doubts that she knows exactly what and who is he and she fucking loves him anyway.
(She trusts him with her soul.)
They only need to talk about it so explicity twice after. Once is when she's driving him home from the airport and very bluntly asks if he's going to hurt the baby, and his eyes are huge and betrayed when he says no.
(She didn't want to ask, but she had to. She's a mother now. Lisa needs her far more than Frank ever can.)
The second time is when she asks if he's going to hurt the kids, and he says no.
So they don't talk about it, just...fuck a little more intensely after one of them kills somebody.
The kids though..they change things for Frank. For the better by far.
For one thing, they make him smile all the damn time. His muscles hurt for a year after Lisa's born because she makes him smile so, so much, and he loves her so, so much. He kisses her little forehead and holds her and rocks her and Athena and Idris take turns guarding her little daemon Pantalaimot and even getting to see Maria feed her is a joy. He ends up in charge of output because Maria is in charge of input and he even loves that, being careful and attentive and not bothered by the smell. (There are a lot of things that smell worse than a diaper, for god's sake.)
There's a deep satisfaction related to the missing years in it--the knowledge that Frank will never hurt these kids, never touch them wrong, never think about them wrong, never ever make their memories disappear. Nobody will. Nobody will ever be able to damage their kids, and if anyone tries, Maria works for the fucking FBI and Frank will eat the damn corpses if he has to. There's a deep spiteful love in learning how to be okay with tickling them, and bathing them, and telling them that everything is alright. He talks for them, soft for Lisa and silly for Frankie, he plays with them, and he and Maria fall deeper in love with each other too.
He loves every single second of it, of this calm domesticity, of school lunches and trips to the aquarium and braiding Lisa's hair and soothing Frankie's bad nightmares and seeing simple kid's movies with them in the theater. He reads The Runaway Bunny to them, kisses their stuffed animals goodnight for them, plays Legos with them. When they're sick he takes care of them and makes them soup, and all with Maria. She looks at him with a deep satisfaction sometimes, a I chose the right man kind of face that makes every single niggling fear die upon impact.
Athena loves it too, encourages Pantalaimot and Rhaendolyn to take up new shapes, try out being octopi and maned wolves and warthogs, plays chase with them and hide-and-seek, parents versus kids. She grooms them and insists on carrying them with her mouth even when they're much too big for it, and every night she gets up, goes from bedroom to bedroom, and checks up on them. She feels alive with the kids, makes up silly stories about her scars and demonstrates to them how to love someone by cuddling up to Idris.
War is bad when he has kids to be with elsewhere.
One night, he wakes up early from the best dream, and he tells Maria about it in the morning.
"I got to come home, and I stayed home," he tells her, voice rough in the mornings from smoking. (When? He never smoked in his conscious memories.) "I stayed at home, made their lunches, made you dinner every night, all of that. I did triathalons and shit, those charity runs, and when you got back from cases I made up your bed, you know? And we got to just be happy, Maria, we got to just live and get old and fat. I got a beer belly in it, Maria, and the kids had kids and college degrees and all that, and they came over and one night we got to sit around and play poker with the grandkids, and their daemons were so beautiful, I wish you could have seen it. And they asked me about the war, and I just shook my head, and none of them knew a damn think about it, you know? None of them had to know. And I drank another beer and I was so, so happy. That's what I want. I want to get old and gray and beer-belly fat with you, and wear flannel shirts and, and fucking golf pants, and get soft and live with you, forever, okay?"
Maria's eyes are a little misty, and they kiss, and this time she's the one silently saying yes, yes, yes.
After the picnic, after he saw.. after Idris exploded into golden dust trying to carry away his children's daemons...after Lisa's face was split open like hamburger meat, and Junior was just fucking gone, not even six years old and dead already, just gone, he hadn't even seen Rhaendolyn die, she'd been too small, and Lisa's Pan was gone too, and Athena, she was..
She lived. And he lived. Through a fucking bullet to the face, he lived, and he couldn't...it was the most unjust thing in the world. It was beyond cruel. It was, it was--it was a thing of his childhood, an evil that he couldn't--how could anyone live with that?
And so he looked at Athena, and decided to live just long enough to take revenge
(It was what Maria would have wanted--their children were murdered--)
But then, staring at the burning wreckage, thinking back to his conversation with the horned idiot on the rooftop with the weirdly strong some-type-of-badger-daemon, thinking back to Maria and her phenotyping and how the news said that she had had a dog daemon, how he had a dog daemon, just another fucking pitbull gone wrong, or something--
He remembered, suddenly and sharply, a thing he had not wanted to remember: photographs, from the years gone missing. Sold, in private collections, illegal. He hadn't remembered before, had not wanted to-- maybe Maria would have just burned them, but he didn't know, and he couldn't at the time, could never, but. But. None of it hurt like them dead, nothing could hurt like them dead, like Maria dead, Lisa dead, Junior dead.
And yet he lived. Why did he live? How the fuck--a hole in the head-- brain damage--but not like the lawyers had said, not like what the woman whose daemon was the same shape as Lisa's had been when she died had said-- he wasn't going to insult anyone else, but how--
He looked at Athena, who now had burn scars, a hole in her paw from the drill bits, what looked like mange, and he decided to hunt down the people who owned the photographs first, and then the people who took them, and then the people who were taking pictures like that now, the people hurting kids now, and he would just kill and kill and kill. Forever. And he'd like it.
Until he died.
Maria had ordered him to not kill himself, not die, to live for their children, live for her honor, live for his love for her, and find someone else, anything else. Get a job or a hobby or something. Do anything. Just live, she'd said, and he'd promised.
But she was dead. His children were dead. And yet he lived.