Matt heard the call when he was walking his date home. It was on the police scanner, a report about a shootout across the rooftops. A man in black chasing a group of men…and something about a dog. Matt tuned out the information about the dog and focused on the location. It wasn’t far from where he was, just a few blocks. He glanced at the woman whose arm was slung through his, chatting amiably about work. Her name was Betty. (“Like Betty and Veronica,” Foggy had told him when he’d met her. His voice had dropped when he’d added, “Thought Veronica was more your type, Matt.” Matt had flashed him a wry grin.)
Truthfully, Foggy was right. Veronica was more his type. He was drawn to dangerous women (Elektra, his mind whispered). He thought that had to do with the devil in him. Maybe that’s why he was with Betty tonight. Foggy was pleased. (“She’s great! She’s fresh! She’s wholesome!” he’d approved. “She’s not milk,” Matt had replied.) Betty was a safe choice, especially since Matt’s other option wasn’t really an option at all. Foggy was just glad that Matt was dating. (“It’s not natural,” he’d lamented. “You? You? It’s Valentine’s, Matt. Since when have you ever been alone on Valentine’s?”) Matt was a little embarrassed to admit it, but that statement was true. Valentine’s had never been a lonely hearts holiday for him. Foggy didn’t think he should break that tradition and to appease his oft-beleaguered best friend, Matt didn’t.
The date with Betty had gone very well. (They usually did.) It had been a rather traditional Valentine’s. Matt did what was expected. He sent her flowers and chocolates during the day; took her to a concert in the park in the evening, followed by a late dinner at a cozy Spanish restaurant. They were on their way back to her place from the restaurant, and if Matt were checking items off a list, it was fairly clear where the night was going to end. Betty was a warm, contented body by his side. She was a little flushed from the wine they’d drunk during dinner, but Matt could hear the happiness in her voice and smell the faintness of her arousal in the air. He was glad she’d had a good time, and he considered carefully how he was going to let her down. Because this night wasn’t going to end the way she thought it was. At least, not after that police call. They stopped outside her building.
“Coffee?” she said to him brightly, as she reached for her key.
“Betty,” Matt said, placing his hand on her arm to get her attention. She turned. Matt could feel the warmness in her look, could almost imagine the smile on her face. “I had a wonderful time tonight.”
Instantly, Matt sensed the change in her, the hint of disappointment floating around them. She’d heard this speech before and the guilt began to gnaw at him.
“I’m very sorry,” he said sincerely. “But something’s come up. A friend’s in trouble,” he explained. “And I’m the only one who can help him.”
Betty let out a soft laugh. She believed him, and the disappointment stung less. “Well,” she said ruefully, tapping him on the chest. “You’re one of the good ones.”
Matt knew he probably shouldn’t, but the guilt was still clinging to him…
“Can I see you again?”
Her laugh was louder now, more confident. “Oh, you better, mister,” she declared. “You owe me.”
Matt nodded, also smiling. He kissed her good night, and waited outside until she made it to her apartment. He listened to her steps down the hallway, and then up to the second floor, down another hallway until she reached the third unit on the right. Then another key was being turned in a latch and Betty entered her home. Matt turned. He jogged down the steps of her building, folding his cane as he did so. He walked rapidly down the sidewalk, turning left at the alleyway between the two buildings. In the darkness, he vaulted up a fire escape and began the swift climb up the building’s side. The police scanner continued to give him updates about the shootout across the rooftops. Bodies were dropping, but the man in black also seemed to be injured. By the time Matt reached the roof, he’d pulled out the black bandana that he used as a mask and tied it across the upper half of his face. There was no time to go home and change. He was mildly grateful that he was wearing a dark suit, although it was one of his nicer ones. He turned in the direction of the shootout, mapping the layout of the rooftops and buildings through his radar sense. Then he began sprinting in the direction of the firefight.
Frank needed him.
* * * * *
Matt vaulted across the space between the two buildings without hesitation. He landed smoothly, using his momentum to pitch his body into a roll. He was on top of the first assailant before the guy even realized it, taking his legs out from under him and disarming him. The second attacker swung his weapon in Matt’s direction and fired, but Matt dodged out of the way. Bullets pelted the concrete, reverberating and lighting up an even clearer map of the rooftop’s layout. The second guy had lost track of him and Matt moved forward, striking him in the chest and twisting his arm behind him. His weapon clattered to the ground. The third guy had turned at the sound of the gunfire, the dog temporarily forgotten. He let loose some shots of his own in Matt’s direction, not caring that he might hit one of his companions. Matt did care, even if the guy whose arm he was twisting was a criminal. He threw them both onto the ground to avoid the gunfire, inadvertently breaking the other guy’s arm in the process. The goon screamed in pain. Matt knocked him out with an elbow to the face before rolling over and dealing with the first guy, who was starting to come to his senses. A kick to the face, followed by another to his gut kept the first guy down as well. His attention shifted to the last attacker.
Matt had heard the patter of dog steps on concrete and the low growl before the animal had leaped onto the man’s back. Shots were fired into the air as the man went down, a snarling dog on top of him. Still, this guy was tough and he managed to fight the dog off, using his weapon as a means of blocking the animal’s bites. He was about to shoot the dog when Matt struck him from behind. Matt didn’t reach him soon enough, however, and a few shots still managed to escape the automatic. He heard the dog whimper briefly – the animal had been hit – but he was still going after the man. The dog was vicious, a hardened attack dog. Matt was impressed. The dog backed away a little when Matt entered the fight, but the low growl that emanated from his throat told Matt that he could rejoin the tussle at any moment, bullet wound be damned. Matt appreciated the back up, but didn’t need it. Like the others, this man was no match for Daredevil.
When Matt had dealt with the last goon, he focused on the dog by his side. The animal was looking up at him, appraising him. He could sense the caution and wariness from the creature, but no fear. The growl had disappeared as well, which was a good sign. The dog recognized that he was different from the other men and didn’t consider him to be a threat. Tentatively, he reached out. The growl returned but at a different pitch. It was a warning, but not a prohibitive one. Matt allowed the dog to sniff his hand and the growl dropped in volume, eventually disappearing when Matt stroked the dog’s head. The animal arched lightly into his touch.
“Good dog,” Matt murmured. “You’ve had a busy night. Let’s go check on Frank, shall we?”
Matt’s senses told him that, drugged state aside, Frank was doing relatively well considering he was hanging off the side of a building. His grip was secure; he just didn’t have the energy or coordination to haul himself up and over the building’s ledge.
Matt walked over to where Frank was, the dog limping by his side. Although the dog had been shot, Matt had quickly ascertained that the bullet had only grazed him and definitely hadn’t hit anything vital. The animal needed patching up, but he’d be fine.
“Hey Frank,” Matt called down. “How you doin’ down there?”
“Give me a hand, asshole,” Frank called back up.
Matt instinctively glanced at his new companion. “Charming, as always,” he told the dog. He smiled when the dog gave him a single answering bark.
“Yeah, I’m here,” Matt replied, reaching down to grasp Frank’s arm.
With Matt’s grip secure, Frank managed to hoist himself over the ledge as Matt helped pull him up. Frank groaned as he sank to the ground, leaning against the building’s side. Matt crouched beside him.
“You injured?” he asked at the same time as Frank said, “Who’s your new friend?”
Matt kept his amusement concealed. Of course, Frank would ask after the dog before attending to his own injuries. There was a time when that would’ve surprised Matt, but that time had since past. Frank Castle was…not what Matt had expected when they’d embarked on their strange on-again and off-again partnership. He opted to answer Frank’s question, rather than pursue his own. His senses could catalogue the other man’s injuries.
“I thought he was your friend,” Matt said. “What’s he even doing on this roof?”
Frank sighed. “Long story,” he admitted. He paused. “Can he come with us?”
This question did earn a raised eyebrow from Matt, a gesture that remained hidden behind his mask. It was unusual for Frank to sound so…wistful.
“I think that’s more his decision than ours,” Matt told him truthfully, though privately he suspected that the dog would follow them. The animal seemed…attached. He dropped his voice when he added, “You were supposed to wait for me.”
Frank snorted in response. “’m not gonna take the night off just ‘cos you have a date,” he retorted.
For the second time, Matt was caught off guard by the vehemence he heard in the other man’s voice, in the sudden rigid line of his body. Matt wasn’t sure where the anger was coming from or what (who?) precisely it was directed at.
“How’d that go anyway?” Frank asked, seemingly as an afterthought.
“Good,” Matt replied. “Right up until the part where you cock blocked me.” He was still a little distracted by Frank’s erratic behavior. It was most likely the drug in his system. Matt had no doubt now that Frank had been drugged somehow. He’d have to find out about that.
Frank let out a deep throaty laugh at that statement. “Serves you right for ditching me,” he said.
“It’s Valentine’s,” Matt stated matter-of-factly.
“Yeah, Red. It’s Valentine’s,” Frank repeated, his voice sounding oddly flat.
Even then, Matt thought he detected an undercurrent of accusation that he found puzzling. Frank wouldn’t care about Valentine’s, he thought (and almost said aloud). He didn’t have time to dwell on the many layers of that sentiment, however. Sirens were growing closer, the police scanner once again a static voice in his ears. They’d lingered too long. They needed to move. Now.
“Can you stand?” Matt asked.
“’Course I can stand,” Frank replied, his irritation plain.
Despite his fighting words, it was clear to Matt after Frank struggled with his coordination and motor control that the other man wouldn’t be able to get up, much less get around, without his help. He slung Frank’s arm about his shoulders, keeping the weight off of Frank’s injured side and hoisted him up.
“We need to move, soldier,” Matt told him. “The cops are nearly here.”
Matt knew that Frank would always respond to his military training. Sure enough, he felt the other man’s senses focus, as much as they were able to in his state. Beside them, the dog also got to his feet, as though he too were at attention.
“Let’s go, boy,” Matt said.
With Frank on his right and the dog on his left, Matt began to navigate them out of the building before the cops were on top of them.
* * * * *
Matt could’ve taken them back to one of Frank’s safe houses. They were near enough to one, but he opted to bring Frank to his place instead, even if it was a little farther. Matt listened to the sounds of the other tenants, waiting by the back door of his building. When he was certain that the coast was clear, they entered. It was a rare occasion that he cursed his building’s lack of an elevator. By now, Frank was practically a dead weight along his side, but he managed to get them both up the stairs without running into anybody. (He’d taken off his mask outside the building.) He was thankful that the dog’s wound had stopped bleeding, so the animal wasn’t leaving a trail of blood in its wake and neither was Frank. Blood stains leading to his front door? Yeah, that would not have been good.
Inside his apartment, he and Frank both collapsed on the couch.
“Red,” Frank said, his voice slightly slurred. He seemed unable to focus.
“Frank,” Matt said, trying to get his attention. “What did they give you?”
“Dunno,” Frank replied, trying to shake his head. “Stuck me with a needle. Not the whole dose,” he added. “Stupid, though. Careless.”
Matt didn’t say anything to that. He remembered the prison and how he’d also been stuck by a needle by the prison doctor, the one who was supposed to give him the all clear but instead had worked for Wilson Fisk. Sometimes shit just happened. He wouldn’t have been able to get out of that mess either without the Albanians’ help.
“Found the lab,” Frank went on. “Right where you thought it would be.”
“You should’ve waited for me,” Matt said again.
“Bah,” Frank muttered, swatting his hand in what he thought was Matt’s general direction. He almost ended up smacking himself in the face. Yeah, orientation was definitely out. Matt didn’t add that hitting the lab without him meant that this new syndicate would have a chance to move their operations before he and Frank could go back and shut them down for good. It didn’t bring them back to square one, but it did set their plans back a bit.
“How do you feel?” Matt asked instead. “Are you hallucinating?”
“This ain’t LSD,” Frank said, making Matt smile.
“Dropped LSD before, have you?” Matt teased.
“Oh, yeah,” Frank replied. “LSD, Ecstasy. Real party animal in the old days.”
Matt chuckled quietly. Frank still had his sense of humor. That was a good sign. (The fact that Frank actually had a sense of humor was another thing that had once surprised Matt. Not anymore.)
“Brain’s a little fuzzy,” Frank said, more seriously. “Sluggish. Hard to move.”
Frank wasn’t saying anything that Matt hadn’t already figured out for himself. The drug was probably some kind of paralytic, but Frank had only gotten a fraction of the dose; not enough to knock him out or immobilize him, just impair him.
“Fluids,” Matt told him, standing up. “You need fluids in your system to wash it out. And rest,” he added. “You can probably sleep this off.”
Frank grabbed his hand unexpectedly. “The dog,” he slurred.
“He’s doing better than you, Frank.”
“Look after the dog,” Frank insisted.
“I will,” Matt assured him.
Leaving Frank sprawled on the couch, Matt shed his jacket and tie. He hung the jacket on the back of one of the table’s chairs, draping the tie over it before heading to the kitchen. The dog padded after him. Matt ran his hand over the cupboards, found the correct one and pulled out a bowl. He filled it with water, placing the bowl on the floor. Immediately, the dog went to it and began to drink. Matt bent down, ran his hand along the dog’s back, patted him once and then straightened. He needed to get his medical kit from the bathroom, both for Frank and the dog.
Frank had dozed off by the time Matt returned with the kit, so Matt followed the other man’s advice and tended to the dog first. The animal was waiting for him in the kitchen beside his now-empty water bowl. Matt cleaned his cut – a sharp graze along the right shoulder – and then bandaged it. All the while, the dog didn’t complain even though it must have been painful. He just lay on the floor patiently, occasionally lifting his head as though to check Matt’s progress.
“You’re a good boy,” Matt said when he was done, once again running his hand over the dog’s head. He felt around some more, using both hands to map the animal’s features, fingers trailing down his neck to the collar around there. The collar was made of worn leather, studded with metal spikes that were probably supposed to look threatening. A ‘suitable’ collar for an attack dog. Matt had been hoping to find a nametag, something that he could run his fingers over to get the dog’s name from the impressions left behind. No such luck.
“What do we call you?” he murmured, as the dog sat up and nuzzled his hand. “You went all out tonight after those guys,” he said fondly, not at all feeling strange about talking to a dog. “Maximum effort.” Matt paused, tilting his head as he listened to Frank’s deep, even breathing and steady heart. “I think we should call you, Max,” he said after a moment. “You like that?” He felt the dog’s head shift under his touch, as though the animal were mirroring his actions.
“Max, it is.”
Matt got to his feet. “Let’s go tend to Frank now,” he said.
He washed his hands at the kitchen sink and then filled one of his sports bottles that he brought to Fogwell’s after work or on the weekends, with water. The straw on the bottle would make it easier for Frank to drink when he eventually came to. Armed with the medical kit, the water bottle and Max who settled next to the sofa, Matt sat beside Frank and began removing his armor. He knew there was a knife wound along Frank’s abdomen; the blade somehow able to get under the Kevlar that Frank wore. Matt could also hear the shifting of Frank’s bones and knew that the other man had bruised ribs. No gunshot wounds, though, and that was a minor miracle. By the time Matt had the Kevlar off and had cut through the shirt underneath, Frank woke up.
“Easy Frank,” Matt immediately said, knowing how lethal the other man could be when startled, despite his drugged state. “Just stitching you up. Here,” he added, pressing the water bottle into Frank’s hand. “Drink.”
Frank accepted the water bottle without complaint. He drank as Matt continued his work. Matt was disinfecting the wound when Frank finally spoke.
“Sorry about your date.”
That was not what Matt had been expecting to hear.
“Don’t worry about it,” Matt assured him. “I’ll make it up to her.”
“Was it Betsy?” Frank pursued. There was something in his tone that made it seem like Matt had a list of women to choose from. ‘Course if Frank knew anything of Matt’s history with women the way Foggy did, he’d realize that his assumption wasn’t at all inaccurate.
“Betty,” Matt corrected.
“Betty,” Frank repeated, his speech slower than usual. Matt knew it was the drugs talking. “She’s nice, right? Wholesome?”
“You’re starting to sound like Foggy.”
Frank chuckled. “Prob’ly the only thing Nelson and I have in common,” he agreed.
“Drink your water, Frank.”
Matt knew he’d underestimated the strength of the drug when Frank began sipping from the water bottle again. Obedient wasn’t a word he associated with Frank. At least, not when it came to his relationship with the other man. Antagonistic? That was the word that defined them. But Frank continued to drink while Matt threaded a needle, thankful that Frank had stopped talking. The other man had chosen a surprisingly uncomfortable topic. Matt had only completed one stitch before Frank spoke again, the water bottle now empty.
“I thought about asking you to do something tonight.”
It was a good thing that Matt had just completed the stitch; otherwise he might’ve seriously stabbed Frank with the needle.
“But it just didn’t seem like something we’d do, y’know?” Frank continued.
“No,” Matt agreed softly, feeling his cheeks grow warm. He was relieved that Frank wouldn’t be able to tell how embarrassed he was. The apartment was dark, the only light source coming from the billboard outside that washed its lurid colors that Matt couldn’t see, across the room. And Frank was probably too out of it to notice the fine details that he would normally pick up effortlessly.
“But I thought about it,” Frank went on, seemingly unable to stop. “A lot.”
Matt fought to keep his hands steady as he began the second stitch.
“See here?” Frank said, vaguely gesturing to where Matt was stitching him up. “Those voodoo senses of yours make me forget yer blind. What blind man can stitch someone else up? Stitch himself up?”
What did that have to do with anything? Matt wondered.
“It made me wonder what we could do together,” Frank said, as though he were answering Matt’s unspoken question. “It would have to be something we could both enjoy.”
“There’s lots of things we could do,” Matt said, reluctantly getting drawn into the conversation.
Matt suppressed a shiver at the anticipation he heard in the other man’s voice. Frank was genuinely interested in his response.
“Listen to music?” he suggested. “I brought Betty to a concert tonight.”
“What’d you listen to?”
“You like jazz?” Frank sounded a little wistful again.
“Coltrane, Davis, Brubeck,” Matt confirmed.
“The smooth stuff.”
Matt smiled as he worked on the next stitch. Frank was completely still beneath his hands. The other man’s pain tolerance was almost as high as his own. “Swing, too,” he added. “I like Ella as much as the next person.”
“Everybody likes Ella,” Frank agreed.
“And Billie Holiday.”
“Her stuff is heartbreaking.”
“You a jazz fan, Frank?”
“Maria was.” Frank sort of half shrugged. He didn’t even have the energy to do that properly. “It grew on me.”
“What sort of music do you listen to?” Matt asked into the contemplative silence that had fallen between them.
“Rock.” Frank chuckled. “Kids these days would call it ‘classic’ rock.”
“Led Zep? The Stones? Meat Loaf?” Matt offered.
“‘Paradise By the Dashboard Light’ is a classic,” Frank stated.
Matt smiled at the conviction in the other man’s voice. “It is,” he agreed. It felt strange to be talking with Frank about something as banal as musical preferences.
“Springsteen’s my favorite,” Frank added, after a moment.
Matt nodded. He was almost done with the stitches. He could see why Springsteen would appeal to Frank.
“Would that –” Frank began, but stopped abruptly. “Would a rock concert be too loud for you? For your senses, I mean.”
Matt was taken aback by the question, though he probably shouldn’t have been. It was logical, given the direction of their conversation.
“It wouldn’t be comfortable,” he said at last, for some reason reluctant to admit this to the other man. One of the reasons he’d chosen the open-air concert for his date with Betty was that the park had diffused the sound, making it easier for him. Small jazz clubs were okay, too. More intimate. Ditto for chamber orchestras, quartets, quintets and the like. A big-production rock concert on the other hand? That would be challenging.
“Thought so,” Frank murmured.
“There are other things we could do,” Matt said, feeling Frank deflate somewhat beside him.
“Have a proper meal, for one,” Matt said. “Not just a take-out burrito.”
“Hey, you like those burritos,” Frank chided.
Matt laughed. “I do,” he admitted.
“Where’d you take Betty tonight?”
“Paella,” Frank approved. “Nice.”
“They have good tapas too.”
Frank felt content by his side and Matt wondered what the other man was thinking. He was finished with the stitches. “Well, you’re done,” he told Frank. “Don’t move around too much. I don’t want to have to redo those stitches.”
“Can’t do much of anything right now,” Frank groaned.
“Do you want more water?” Matt asked him. “Are you hungry? I can fix something.”
“Nah, I’m good,” Frank told him. “Maybe more water?”
“All right.” Matt was about to stand up, but Frank grasped his arm with surprising strength.
“Hey,” the other man said. “You wanna do something sometime?”
“Do something?” Matt echoed faintly. He could feel the heat from Frank’s touch, sense the warmth spreading across the other man’s cheeks. It was taking Frank a lot of effort to say this.
“Yeah,” Frank said, drawing the word out. “Maybe we could start with a drink?”
There was so much to unpack in such a simple statement. ‘Start’ implied a progression. Start with a drink. It meant that the drink would lead somewhere else and Matt didn’t know what to make of that. He hadn’t thought Frank would be interested in anything like that. Maybe it was just the drugs talking. Or maybe it was the drugs giving Frank the courage to say what he really wanted to say. How would Matt know the difference?
“Listen Frank,” Matt said gently. “You’re not yourself right now. That drug is messing with your head. But if you remember this in the morning and you still want to do something, I’ll have that drink with you.”
“I’ll remember, Red.”
Matt heard the promise in those words and this time, he didn’t suppress the shiver. “I’ll get you that water,” he said, extricating himself from Frank’s hold. “You think you can make it to the bed?”
“Trying to proposition me in this condition?”
“To sleep, asshole.”
“I’m fine here,” Frank assured him. “Too comfortable to move.”
Since Matt had sacked out enough times on his own sofa, he knew that statement was actually true. “Well, you have Max to keep you company.”
“Max?” Frank questioned.
Matt gestured at the sleeping dog at his feet beside the sofa. Frank immediately perked up at the sight. He tried to sit up to get a better look, but Matt gently pushed him back down. It was another effect of the drug that Frank didn’t resist.
“Stitches,” Matt reminded him.
“How’s he doin’?” Frank asked instead.
“Like I said before,” Matt told him. “Better than you. A bullet grazed him, but it’s just a surface wound. He’s a real fighter, that one. Where’d you find him?”
“Those punks killed his master. They were at the lab. Don’t what the guy did for the syndicate, but that dog was out for blood.” Frank paused. “His name’s Max, huh?”
“Not actually sure what his name is,” Matt admitted. “Couldn’t find a tag. Thought I’d call him ‘Max,’ short for ‘maximum.’ Like you said, he went all out.”
“I like it,” Frank replied, and Matt could hear the smile in his voice. “You gonna keep him then? He could be your guide dog. Not that you need one,” he added.
“He’s an attack dog, Frank.”
“So? Dogs can be retrained.”
“I thought you might like to keep him,” Matt said. “You were so concerned about him earlier.”
“Yeah, well…” Frank trailed off. He hesitated. “Joint custody?” he suggested.
The idea made Matt laughed. “This isn’t a marriage, Frank,” he teased.
“Ain’t it though?” Frank said, and he wasn’t teasing. “You and me, Red. We make an odd couple.”
“And yet somehow we work,” Matt murmured. He felt the heat bloom again from the other man, coupled now with the faintest scent of arousal. That wouldn’t do. Frank needed rest, not to get turned on. “Let me get you that water,” he said, finally standing up.
Matt went back to the kitchen and refilled the water bottle. What was his life that on Valentine’s Day he’d had to rescue his some-time vigilante partner whom he fought with more often than not, slept with more times than he’d care to admit, and was inexplicably secretly crushing on the rest of the time? Brought him home, patched him up on his sofa, and picked up a homeless dog along the way?
Just another day in the life of Matthew Murdock.
By the time he returned to the living room, Frank had fallen asleep again. Max hadn’t budged an inch either. Matt placed the water bottle on the coffee table. He’d also refilled the bowl of water for Max and now placed it beside the sleeping dog. Then he pulled out a spare blanket and draped it across Frank’s form before heading to the bedroom.
* * * * *