Matthew Murdock listened to the ambient noise: the people walking along the road below him, the whistle of the patrolling guard. Behind him, Frank Castle's heartbeat sounded, even and reassuring.
“Okay, he just turned around.”
Matt nodded as the whistling faded.
“You got explosive rounds?”
Matt nodded again, trying to focus on the task at hand. He had what felt like an arsenal: explosive rounds, sleep darts, even grenades.
He didn’t need any of it.
“Come on, Red. Take the shot.”
Matt ignored Frank’s urging, instead carefully making his way from the ledge to an awning, and then to the ground. A voice in his earbud kept up a steady narration of what was happening: how close he was to the guard, the lack of any other observers.
He twitched his hands, and listened to the guard’s gurgle as he was choked unconscious.
“Really? You’re an altar boy for this, too?” Frank sounded amused rather than judgmental. “Whatever, Red. Just don’t forget to hide the body.”
Matt nodded, listening to the now-unconscious guard’s snoring. “Yeah, thanks. Does it matter?”
“Zach said it does. If somebody finds the body, it counts toward your chaos level.”
“And that’s bad?”
“I guess the way you’re doing it, it is.”
Matt heard Frank’s short, scoffing noise, and turned so that Frank could see his face, his wry expression. “I guess you’d go in guns blazing, kill everybody.”
“No.” Frank’s voice was quiet, but intense enough to cut through the rest of the sound. “Just the ones that need to be put down.”
“But isn’t that the whole point of all this?” Matt asked, waving a hand in front of him toward the screen. He couldn't see it, not really, but the voice in his ear and the occasional help from Frank made it all possible. “That you can accomplish the same thing in different ways?”
The voice in Matt’s ear warned of an approaching guard, but he ignored it, instead listening to Frank’s annoyed grunt.
“That’s not real life, Red. Sometimes the only way to end things is to kill somebody.”
“Or a lot of somebodies,” Matt added, his voice dry. “I mean, this thing has a lot of guards.”
“Speaking of,” Frank began, and of course then Matt heard the guard’s voice raised in challenge. His hands moved, but not quickly enough, and the voice in the earbud informed him that his avatar had died.
“That’s what happens, Red,” Frank said, though he sounded resigned rather than smug. “You die, or somebody you care about dies.”
“It’s a game, Frank,” Matt replied, already guessing at Frank’s reaction even before the bigger man exhaled sharply and moved away.
“Yeah, it’s a game, but you won’t kill them even though it’s a game. And if you hadn’t just died and other guards had found the one you knocked out, then there’s more of them after you, and they’re pissed.”
Matt set aside the video game controller. “Look, I know it’s easier to -”
“You think it’s easy?”
Frank surged closer, veering off at the last minute, and Matt’s hands came up instinctively. Frank paced at the other end of the apartment, all coiled energy and muttered profanity.
“I didn’t mean that killing people is easy. I know it’s not. I meant in the game it’s easier to kill people.”
“Jesus, Red, don’t you ever just want to cut loose?” Frank demanded, though he still kept his distance. “I mean, you’re the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen. Don’t you want to... I don't know, let the devil out?”
Matt didn’t answer, but he was pretty sure Frank knew the answer anyway: of course he did.
So he said, “Yeah, sometimes. I almost did, once.”
That earned him a scoffing sound from Frank, and a disbelieving, “Really?”
“Really.” Matt could tell Frank was waiting for more, so he shrugged and continued, “It was the man who killed my father.”
Just like that, he was taken back to that night: the yielding of Sweeney’s face beneath his fists, Elektra’s exultation. “End it,” he muttered, and Frank hummed in puzzlement. “That’s what she said. Elektra. End it now. Keep going. Kill him. And I couldn’t.” Matt lips curved, more a baring of teeth than a smile. He hadn't killed Sweeney, and look what happened. “Frank, if I think the man who killed my father deserves a second chance, how could I do less for anybody else?”
There was also part of him that wondered what would have happened with Elektra if he had killed Sweeney. Would they have stayed together? Would she have brought him to Stick? Would they have spent years fighting the Hand together? Of course, none of those things had happened, though there were times when they seemed like a better alternative than reality.
Frank moved closer finally, and Matt felt the couch sag as Frank sat on the other end. “Okay, Red, but how many other people has this guy killed?”
Sweeney. It took Matt a moment to remember. He shook his head. “I can’t think like that. I can only think of how many people I’ve killed.” He paused, then added, just in case, “Which is none.”
Frank sighed, a quiet exhalation that spoke volumes. “Maybe this was a bad idea.”
“The video game? No Frank, it was a lot of fun. I appreciate you thinking of me, and Zach’s advice about the mods.” Matt leaned more heavily against the back of the couch as realization struck. “Did you think I’d go on a killing spree in the game and then, what, decide that killing people is okay after all?”
“Not a spree,” Frank replied, something about his tone suggesting that Matt had not missed the mark by too much. “Besides, even if you did kill somebody, couldn’t you just go tell your priest and all is forgiven? In real life, I mean; not the game. I don’t think your priest cares if you kill pixels.”
Matt’s heart constricted in his chest, and he worked not to clench his teeth. Frank had been gone; he didn’t know what he was saying. “Father Lantom is dead.”
“Aw, Red -”
“And I’d have to repent,” Matt continued, before Frank could go on. He wasn’t ready to talk about Father Lantom, least of all to Frank, who would have killed Dex with no qualms.
And then Father Lantom would still be alive. Matt steered his mind away from that path, as if he hadn’t been walking it instead of sleeping during those horrible weeks after Father Lantom’s death. He’d talked to his - Maggie about it, and she’d said that Father Lantom wouldn’t have wanted Matt to kill someone to save him. Matt wasn’t so sure, even now, if he believed that.
He would rather have Father Lantom alive, even at the cost of his soul.
“It doesn’t count if you don’t repent?” Frank asked, apparently going with the subject change, though he sighed.
“Would you have accepted an insincere apology from one of your kids?” Matt asked, hearing the bite to his tone. He knew he aimed his words at one of Frank’s weak points, the crack in his armor. He couldn’t find it in himself to care, raw as his own emotions felt.
But Frank only chuckled, a short, dry sound, as if he knew what Matt had tried to do. When he spoke, Matt could hear the smile in his voice. “Nah. But I didn’t make my kids do… well, a lot of the things your God seems to want you to do. I’d want my kids to have grown up to be their best selves, even if their way wasn’t the way I would have done things.”
In that moment, Matt felt a little ashamed of his words, of the intent behind them. “Sorry.”
“Nah,” Frank repeated. “My kids did that, too. They got hurt, they’d lash out. Hurting them back wouldn’t have done any good. Maria was good at that, so patient. Frank Junior especially, he took it hard when I was gone, acted out sometimes. She’d never yell, just sit there and rub his back and talk him through it. Lisa told me about it. Maria never would have, wouldn’t have wanted me to worry about them.”
He had worried, though. Matt could tell from his tone, from the way he shifted on the couch, and the brief stutter of his heartbeat. “She sounds like a great mom.”
“Yeah.” The couch shifted again as Frank angled himself toward Matt, rather than the shoulder-to-shoulder posture of before. “I can listen. Not so great at talking. I ain’t rubbing your back, though, Red,” he added, though something about his tone, the increase of his heartbeat, caught at Matt’s attention.
Matt’s back twinged at the thought of Frank's hands. He still wasn’t completely recovered from Midland Circle. Well, not just his back. But Frank’s hands on his back… Matt let himself imagine it. They’d be rough, probably would catch on his scars. Matt didn’t guess that Frank moisturized regularly, and he probably had calluses. His hands would be strong, though. Maybe they would help with that ache in his back, the way it pulled when he twisted too quickly.
Maybe that would distract him.
Matt realized that Frank was waiting for his reply. “Oh. Uh. Thanks, Frank, I really appreciate -”
“Yeah, don’t mention it,” Frank replied, too quickly.
Had it been an offer after all? Matt frowned a little, and Frank continued, “Hey, look, I have to get the console back to Zach. Honestly, I think the only reason he let me borrow it was because Leo was giving him shit about not wanting to go without his games for a day to help out the poor blind guy.” He must have seen how Matt went stiff, as his next words were as close to apologetic as Matt had ever heard from him. “Hey, Red -”
“It’s okay,” Matt said, his voice tight. “I know that’s how people see me.” Hell, he even used it sometimes, in front of juries. He always felt dirty afterwards, but sometimes it had made the difference with his clients. That was what mattered.
“Not me,” Frank replied, his voice low and rough. “And the Liebermans wouldn’t either. Well, maybe Zach would, at first,” he admitted, though his tone held affection for the boy. “But he’d come around. Why don’t you come along? Sarah and David won’t mind. They always make way too much food.”
It was a pity invite, an apology for his words. Matt knew it. But he also heard Frank’s heartbeat accelerate, the way his words rambled. Maybe it was more than that.
The alternative was more takeout, or, more realistically, deciding that food was too much trouble and just not eating again. But Matt wasn’t sure that he really wanted to sit down and have dinner at a table like that. Mother, father, sister, brother, everything he had missed as a kid. Well, maybe not the siblings. He figured Hell’s Kitchen probably couldn’t have handled any more Murdocks.
Frank didn’t seem to be breathing as he waited for Matt’s answer.
Frank didn’t say anything in reply, but instead just got up and started to disconnect the game console. He probably didn’t realize that Matt heard his soft exhalation.
Dinner would no doubt be interesting. Matt got to his feet and straightened his tie.
Whatever came next, at least it was something new. Something different.
He was ready.