It just slipped out the first time, the way nicknames worked when Frank was in the marines, the first thing that popped into your head, the first thing that suck.
How ‘bout you, Red? Frank asked, because he didn’t know the guy’s name and wasn’t making one up, and sure as shit wasn’t going to call him the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen. It fit—red suit, red temper, all that shouting rage pulling against the chains Frank used to tie him to the roof. If Red wanted a piece of him that badly, he was gonna get it, every bit he deserved, and fuck leaving that for the cops. This was his business, now, because Red had gone out his way to make it personal. Yeah, Red was it.
Red was it even when he wasn’t dressed like a fetishist’s idea of a Halloween costume, but Frank didn’t know that yet. He found out later, lying in his hospital bed with his body hurting in ways he didn’t know a body could hurt and poking mentally at the pain in his drilled-through foot with an almost intellectual curiosity, and he found out because Red couldn’t keep his stupid mouth shut.
They looked like a nice outfit, Nelson and Murdock and their wide-eyed secretary, the kind that took on charity cases and thought it was their job to save the world. Frank didn’t need saving, didn’t want it. His family had needed it, and no one had been there when they did, and no amount of it was going to help him now.
“C’mon, that D.A. out there is gonna tear your little rinky-dink firm to shreds. A guy like me ain’t worth it. I knew what I was doing,” Frank told them, going for reasonable and sounding mostly tired. God, he was tired. “Just walk away.”
You can walk away, Red had told him when he was chained to that roof, and Frank didn’t register that he’d used those same words until Murdock snapped his own response back at him. “Walk away? Would you do that?”
Frank squinted at him like he was looking through his rifle’s scope, the other two and the rest of the world faded into the background. “C’mere,” he said.
The D.A. had said, No one crosses over the tape. The tape a line down the room, marking where it was safe and where was too close to his dangerous self. Red walked right over it with a surety that didn’t match up with a blind man in a strange room, and Nelson looked like he’d bitten down into his favorite food to find it rotten while the secretary looked like she’d hailed a taxi only to watch it transform into Pegasus and fly away. So, that told Frank who knew.
Red trailed his hand along the bed’s metal railing until he stood right at Frank’s side, his lips pressed thin like he was just now starting to register the implications of what he’d said. He opened his mouth to spout more bullshit, but Frank wasn’t having it. With the hand that wasn’t cuffed to the bed, he reached up for those clouded, red glasses he wore and took them off.
It made Red flinch like he’d been hit, but he didn’t move, and now Frank could see the purple-red bruise discoloring the skin around his right eye socket, that Frank thought would match up with his own knuckles perfectly. His eyes remained unfocused, and the pupils didn’t change at all. Maybe he really was blind.
“You got a nasty bruise there,” Frank told him.
“I’m blind,” Red answered quietly, like he didn’t want his partner or the secretary to hear him. “Sometimes I walk into things.”
Yeah, and he probably used that excuse well past the point where it overstayed its welcome. Frank looked him over, red hair, red glasses, red tie like an inside joke with himself, and Frank laughed because he got it. “Looks like you walked into someone’s fist,” he said. “You should be more careful.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.” Red’s voice went polite, strained, and he held out his hand. “May I have my glasses back, Mr. Castle?”
Well, he hadn’t planned on keeping them. He folded them into Red’s hand, then held it so he couldn’t pull away. “Hey,” Frank said, barely above a whisper. “I’m not mad.”
As it turned out, he blushed nice and red, too.
Red made himself scarce real quick after that, but the secretary—Karen—threw him for another loop by shoving a picture of his family in his face, while Nelson, evidently the only sane one in the entire firm, tried to pull her back. Then, Frank was busy with other things. Like somehow getting talked into letting these yo-yos represent him in court, after all.
The light was on, so someone had to be home. Frank stood out in the hallway behind the bubbled glass with the dim, yellow light of the lamp inside leaking out under the door and across his feet.
“Murdock?” he called, rapped softly against the glass. Hoped it was the right one. The words Nelson and on the door had been covered up with paper, but hey, you never knew. That did leave Murdock, Attorneys at Law, attorneys-plural underneath it, like Murdock was more than one person. Frank cracked a grin at it and wondered if Red knew.
In front of him, the door creaked open. Red stood there with the light from the desk lamp at his back and his front in dull-washed shadow. “Business hours are over, Frank,” he said.
“Your light’s on,” Frank pointed out.
Red tilted his head like he was listening for the electric hum. “Oh. I hadn’t noticed.”
That about used up Frank’s tolerance for pussyfooting. He pushed his way past Red and into the office, and after a wavering second, Red shut the door, shutting them in. As he moved, Red’s body turned to track his, putting him in the light, and Frank hissed through his teeth.
Bruises ran across his face like an oil slick, mottled green and purple discoloration swelling one eye shut, a slit to match the angry red gash on his neck, just shallow enough that it didn’t leave him bleeding out in the alley where they attacked him, but pointed enough to let Frank know that it could’ve, easy. Beneath his dress shirt, past the loose tie and rolled-up shirt sleeves, Frank would bet his entire arsenal there were more.
“You look like shit,” he said.
“I’ve had worse.” Red leaned against the wall and folded his arms. “You killed them.”
Frank took a step closer and mirrored him. “You asking or telling?”
They’d been after Frank, fucking asshole drug traffickers that liked to get kids hooked on their product, then force them into selling it and taking the fall when they got caught. He’d wiped out one of their operations and told one of their drivers, pissing himself in the corner and new to this and otherwise clean as far as Frank could tell, to turn himself in, or he’d be next. He had, sobbing his way into a jail cell and then into the good graces of the only defense attorney dumb enough to take his case. Frank should’ve seen this coming. When the traffickers hadn’t been able to find Frank, they’d gone after his lawyer, in broad daylight, in the alley outside his office, when he couldn’t fight back because he couldn’t blow his cover, and he was wearing the wrong kind of suit.
“One of them overdid it on the aftershave. Another smoked a very specific brand of Cuban cigars,” Red listed the evidence. “I can smell it on your jacket. And, blood, gunpowder, kerosene. You disposed of the bodies.”
“They beat you up,” Frank said.
A laugh cut through his lopsided mouth. “You can’t kill everyone who beats me up.”
“Is that a challenge?” Frank asked. He was only half-joking.
“I can take care of myself,” Red snapped.
“They didn’t know that,” Frank said, kinda the point. “It wasn’t—it wasn’t really about you. They were looking for me.”
For a blind man, Red sure could give him a look. This one said, No shit, Sherlock. “Oh, I know. They gave me a message for you.”
“What message?” Frank asked. “You weren’t gonna tell me?”
“It was full of bad threats and halitosis, and it looks like you received it just fine,” Red told him like a mouth full of thorns.
So, nothing useful. “Guess I did.”
“You know, it complicates the deal my client has with the D.A., if most of the people he’s informing on are dead.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Frank groused. Leave it to Red to somehow turn lemonade back into lemons. “You’re fuckin’ welcome.”
The clock ticked midnight and Red slumped against the wall a little, like he felt the weight of the hour. “Why are you here, Frank?”
“It was my fault,” Frank said, and that made this his responsibility. “Just checking if you’re ok.”
“I’m fine,” Red said flatly, though that was either a lie or a very fucked-up truth. Frank didn’t think he’d been fine since that woman on the rooftop, flashes of red on black like the opposite of the devil suit, black on red, like Red was stained with her and she was stained with him. He’d been carrying around red-tinged grief in the months since, clotting around him like coagulated blood.
But Frank wasn’t touching that one; he wasn’t looking to get punched. “Got you something,” he said, and took the box out of his jacket and tossed it to Red, who caught it on instinct.
He tore through the cardboard like he was ready to fight whatever was inside, and then his hands went still as they closed around its contents. A glasses case, and the object he could hear rattling within.
“I tried to match your old ones,” Frank said as Red opened it, the shattered remains of the ones he’d found in the alley, red bits of glass around it like the fine spray of an exit wound.
“You didn’t have to—” Red began.
“It was my fault,” Frank said again, a poor explanation and a poor recompense—he could replace the glasses, but not Red’s bruised muscles or broken skin. “Least I can do.”
Carefully, Red took the splinter-thin shape out of the case and put the glasses on, stood up a little straighter as the red-clouded frames covered his eyes. “It wasn’t your fault,” he said.
If that was the way he wanted to play it, Frank wasn’t gonna waste his breath. “Sure,” he said flatly, humoring him, and turned towards the door. “Try to keep ‘em intact.”
“Thank you.” Red’s voice came unexpected, and Frank looked back to see a smile on his torn face, a smile that made his chest feel a little warm because he’d put that there.
“Don’t mention it,” Frank said, and thinking of something else, added, “And get some goddamn sleep, whatever you’re doing can wait until morning, and you’ll be fuckin’ better at it then, too. See ya around, Red,” he finished with, and left before Red could argue.
That was the first thing, the glasses. But it wasn’t the last.
Some nights, the city held its breath the way the air did with a storm coming, the one Frank’s bones forecast in all the tectonic lines where they’d broken apart and fused back together. He’d woken that morning from a dream of rain. After dark, the sky rewarded his dreams for their prophecy and split open like an egg, rain running thick and viscous over the buildings and windows like the egg whites, diffusing all the neon lights into one big watercolor. It was probably pretty, if you weren’t stuck out in it like Frank was, but the pressure the day had spent building was bound to break in more places than one.
He found Red in the thick of it right where Frank knew he would be, though he wasn’t looking for him any more than usual. Between four dark shapes of would-be muggers, or possibly worse, and a screaming woman, between a rock and a loud place. One lunged, and Red did his ninja shit and sent him yelping to the pavement, an agony Frank heard even from the fire escape several floors up. The rest closed in, and Red threw punches and kicks in arcs but he was stumbling back, tossing his head like he was trying to get the water out—it had to be fucking with him.
Frank sighed through his nose, took aim, and fired. Nonlethal, so Red wouldn’t read him the riot act for saving his life. The screaming woman fled when the gunshots started like the noise unfroze her from her panic, and about damned time, too. When the dark shapes of the muggers were writhing safely on the ground, Frank slid down the ladder and landed in the alley, in a puddle with a splash.
Just in time to see Red yank out the knife buried deep in the meat of his forearm, and blood spurt out like ink in the orange streetlight. “You fucking idiot!” Frank shouted, thunderclap drowning out the middle word, censored by God on high. “You wanna leave your goddamn DNA all over the crime scene?”
The rain would sweep it into the gutter, though, and leave everything clean like the world born anew. Frank took Red by his uninjured arm and dragged him away from the moaning shapes on the ground. Back at Frank’s latest hole in the wall, two blocks east, he let Red use his phone to tip off the cops, more than the fuckers who stabbed him deserved. Left up to Frank, he’d leave them there to roll around in pain until morning.
Cold air conditioning made the weighed-down hair on Frank’s arms try to raise into goosebumps. He shed his waterlogged layers in favor of dry ones and made Red do the same, “Or I’ll tell Karen and that partner of yours the stupid shit you’re doing,” and then Red sat in his underwear and terry-cloth towels with his arm out for Frank to deal with. His clothes lay sodden in the corner, black like a hole in the ground, and Frank didn’t like that change from his old red, didn’t trust it one bit.
“Hold still.” Frank knelt in front of him and moved in straight lines. He dumped rubbing alcohol to sanitize the wound, and Red made a wet crimson noise when it hit that tapered out into a measured exhale. Drag of the thread, sutures. He wasn’t being gentle. “Why don’t you stay the fuck inside when it’s raining?” Not with his words, either.
“Why? So you can kill people?” Red asked, only clenching his teeth a little.
Stab of the needle, vindictive. “Better than someone killing you.”
If you believed what the rumor mill churned out, someone already had. Something about a building falling on Red’s head, going missing-presumed-dead, popping up again like Lazarus, and Fisk, fucking Fisk. It happened, whatever actually happened, at a time that coincided with Frank neck-deep in his own shit, and he hadn’t really caught wind of it until after he managed to pull himself out. And now, Red was the alive half of dead-or-alive, red splotches on his cheeks from the cold and red blood stopping up against Frank’s stitches. Box opened, and the Schrodinger’s cat meowed.
Still, Frank wanted to say, Quit while you’re ahead, and he wanted to say, Catholic boy, you should know that even Jesus didn’t come back twice, but he could already hear Red’s response to that, the grin and the Jury’s still out on that one, lawyering it up. He alternated between lawyer jokes and devil jokes and probably thought he was so fucking clever.
“What happened to that body armor stuff you used to have?” Frank asked, transitioned from stitches to antibacterial ointment, smeared on thick.
“I don’t have it anymore,” Red answered, obvious and obfuscating, which made Frank want to smack him.
He got the bandages out instead, winding them around. “Can you get another one?”
“Is getting stabbed easier?”
“Thank you for the stitches, Frank.” Red cut off the end of that conversation. “If not for your bedside manner.”
Frank stood, stretched out his legs. “Do I look like a fucking nurse to you?”
Red laughed. “You’re about as nice as the nurse I know.”
“That’s as nice as you deserve.”
“She’d say it’s nicer.”
The nurse, whoever she was, sounded like she had her head on straight. Frank laughed in his throat and folded back the lid of a box on his table, tossed Red the soft objects of sweats and a shirt. The shirt he rubbed between his fingers with a puzzling crease in his forehead. “What is this? It doesn’t smell like you.”
It didn’t smell like him? Frank had to move around that before answering. Every now and again, he forgot how goddamn weird Red was. “Some kind of microfiber,” he said. From a pack full of identical shirts, all ridiculously soft, that he’d impulse-bought and then felt immediately stupid, only kept them because immediately returning them would’ve been stupider. With a smirk, he added, “It’s your color.”
The dull red of it was almost the same as Red’s old suit, and looked better against his hands than that black outfit did. “You bought me a shirt?”
“You keep stealing mine.” Or rather, Frank kept handing them out in the too-often times Red ended up like this, ripped skin and clothing. “Get injured less.”
“Easier said,” Red muttered, and stood out of his towels to get dressed. Frank didn’t mean to look, but his eyes had other ideas and stuck to the planes of Red’s torso and legs, the wet boxers clinging tight. Old news: not the rabbit-hearted shame from his middle-school locker room or the practiced ice-numbed ignoring he’d perfected in the barracks, and certainly not the leaping want that propelled him those few times towards another man’s look, towards his hands and his body. He’d kicked away his shame by then, but couldn’t do the same with the consequences, and kept it all neat and sequestered where no one would find it, and he didn’t think anyone suspected because he liked women, too. This was just there, like the sight of food made Frank’s empty stomach hungry and the sight of his rifle made his trigger finger twitch.
Red’s body disappeared under the sweatpants and the shirt, and Frank exhaled. Found him dry socks and a spare pair of boots a little too big on him, but they were close enough to the same size that they wouldn’t fall off. Plastic bag for his wet clothes.
As he gathered them, Red passed something back over his shoulder. “I can tell, you know, when someone wants me.” He turned and stood, and his smile put Frank’s insides in plastic, shrink-wrapped and vacuum-sealed. “Your breathing changes, your heart beats faster, your skin gets hot. It’s pretty clear, actually.”
“You can tell,” Frank repeated.
The smile widened. “I can tell.”
“Yeah? And you humiliate everyone who notices you have a body?” Frank stalked over to the window, looked out and listened. The rain had stopped. “Go home, Red.”
“Fuck off. I’m not telling you again.”
Frank watched from the corner of his eye, Red’s smile falling into open-mouthed disbelief. He licked his lips like a parting shot and left, in Frank’s clothes and that red shirt Frank bought for him because he was an idiot.
As soon as he was gone, Frank flipped over the deadbolt with a snap that felt like it should have echoed against the concrete walls, but didn’t. He set out all his guns like planted rows and cleaned them until his hands ached and his eyes burned, and still went to sleep with a red-hot coal burning angry in stomach, and dreamed restless of collapsing buildings and fire.
The call shot out of the police radio and into Frank’s ear, bringing its static from background noise to his full and undivided attention. Frank paused in his dinner, mid-chew to listen. On the radio, the cops tossed numbers back and forth like a ball game, codes to organize the city’s chaos into the neat little boxes of the reports they would fill out later, into servers and file cabinets. The variety of them in frantic tones told Frank the chaos kept escaping. Listen long enough, and you knew the shouts that meant they had it under control, and the ones that meant they had no fucking idea what they were dealing with.
Then, something pierced through. “Fucking—what are those, ninjas? What the fuck?”
Frank dropped his half-eaten sandwich and was on the street so fast that the air resented his passing. In his van, and he drove. The police radio guided him like a lantern through fog, which is to say, throwing shadows and doing a shit job of showing him the path. Not that he needed it much; Frank already knew where he was going.
A voice in his head, harsh: Murdock can take care of himself. Frank wove the van in and out of traffic, thread through the eye of the needle. He couldn’t last time, he thought back.
You don’t even know they’re after him.
I don’t know that they’re not.
Bridge behind him, Frank skidded into Hell’s Kitchen and into the garage of a guy who owed him a favor. Stomped out of the van and onto the sidewalk with his heart pounding and his body taking up space, maybe even enough for Red to notice. “Come on, find me,” Frank said as he started walking, almost conversational volume. “Find me before they find you.”
Unless they had already. That night on the roof, when that woman died in Red’s arms, those ninjas moved fast. He’d have to move faster. Frank circled closer to Red’s building like the center of a target and jumped for the fire escape’s ladder, catching it with fingers and a force that slammed into his joints. Gritted his teeth and pulled himself up, started climbing. As he did, he thought he should’ve seen Red by now. Red had his super-ears the ground of Hell’s Kitchen and didn’t usually suffer Frank here for this long without showing up to demand his goddamn itinerary. He stamped down the worry and snuck past a man smoking out of his open window when his back was turned at the ding of a microwave.
At Red’s window, on the top floor, Frank’s hands slowed as they worked the latch. The last time he’d seen him, a month ago, reared its head and broke into his rage like it did every time Frank accidentally thought about it. Red’s body, and any desire he might have felt red-tinted with how fucking pissed he’d been, when Red pulled that string and spun it around like cheap entertainment. The humiliation burned. God, Red was gonna think he was a stalker, some kinda obsessed. That’s not why Frank was here or even why he knew where Red lived; he knew where to find Parker and Romanoff, Jones and Cage and the rest of them because he believed in being thorough. Somehow, Frank didn’t think that would matter.
A feeling intruded like eyes on his back, like being watched. He turned in time to see a shape like a shadow go from roof to roof, there-and-gone so fast that it could’ve been a trick of the light. It wasn’t. Whatever Red thought of this was tomorrow’s problem, Frank decided. Tonight’s was making sure he was alive to think it. His hands recovered their deftness, and he shoved the window up and squeezed inside.
The kitchen he found himself in resolved itself into outlines as his eyes adjusted. He’d half-expected to get punched before they did. It was a weeknight and late and he’d been betting on Red being home if he wasn’t nearby, but now doubt crept up his back like an insect. Frank shook it off and moved through the apartment, looking. He might as well make sure, now that he was here.
And a good thing, too. There Red was, asleep in his bed and oblivious to Frank’s presence, for a reason Frank discovered when he shook him awake.
“Frank?” Red asked snot-thick, followed by a rattling cough.
Shadow outside the window, no time to explain. Frank rolled Red off the mattress moments before arrows pierced it.
The ninjas moved fast as Frank remembered, but they weren’t bulletproof. Either he got them all with Red’s meager help, from that stick he threw around and the adrenaline of a near-death experience, or he got enough to give any leftovers second thoughts about coming too close.
In the end, him, Red, and a half a dozen bodies in the living room. Frank kept his finger on the trigger and his back against Red’s. “Any more?”
Red peeled away and coughed again as he sat on the couch. “Don’t think so. Sinuses.” He waved vaguely at his face. “Makes it hard.”
“Didn’t you get your flu shot?”
Shake of his head. “Forgot.”
“You’re the dumbest smart person I know,” Frank said and flicked the safety on his gun, got it back in his holster.
“Did you get a flu shot?”
“Yeah. Every year.” Like someone who didn’t want to die in the stupidest way possible.
Red laughed, and winced like it hurt him. “Big bad Punisher, getting his flu shot.”
Frank rolled his eyes and moved on to more pressing matters. “Cops on their way?”
“Mm-mm. Neighbors are used to weird noises.”
He’d bet they were. “Stay here,” Frank said, and nodded at the bodies. “I’ll take care of this.”
That took until morning, and Frank went up the stairs and made his last sweep as the sun rose, found Red blanket-wrapped and bleary and still on the couch. He was drinking tea and eating buttered toast, meaning he had at least one self-preservation instinct, one more than Frank gave him credit for.
“It’s done. You should sleep, if you can,” he said.
Exhausted as he looked, Red shrugged like sleep was a losing battle. “My bed’s a pincushion.”
“Is the couch that bad?”
“It’s not the couch, it’s—” Red sighed, explained. “It’s the sheets. When I’m awake, I can tune stuff out, but when I try to relax enough to sleep, I need . . .”
The sheets that had been shot through of holes. “Ok,” Frank said, and like he had with the bodies, “I’ll take care of it.”
“What are you—?”
“I would’ve stopped them outside, if I knew you were sick,” Frank said. That, and Red wasn’t going to get better if he didn’t rest, and Frank didn’t see anyone else around to solve that problem.
He shut himself into the barrier of Red’s bedroom and tried not to think too much about it, about touching sheets where he’d definitely—ok, that was pretty much the definition of thinking too much about it, and Frank clenched a fist around his anger until his brain behaved. Focused on removing the arrows slow and careful because Red told him they were probably poisoned, then removing the whole shredded mess down to the dumpster. Only the box spring stayed, angular boards like last night’s coffin.
Noon saw him finished, van back in the garage of the guy who owed him, boxes hauled up the stairs. The new bed together, hospital-cornered silk sheets, red because why not, because they cost the same in any color. The spare set he folded and stacked on top of the dresser.
Illness and the deflation that comes after the rush of a fight had pulled Red at last into unconsciousness. Reluctantly, Frank shook him awake. “Hey.”
“Bedtime,” Frank said, two sharp tugs at the blanket to get him moving.
“If you’re coming with,” Red mumbled.
Frank’s chest burned like matchsticks, but Red got up and shuffled towards his bedroom like he hadn’t meant to say it aloud. He closed his eyes for a second against the figure Red made, a nucleus in the cell of his apartment, where Frank was a foreign body, trapped. A delirious muttering from the sleep-deprived and sick didn’t mean anything. He stood and hovered near Red, close but not touching, to make sure he reached his new mattress and settled in his new sheets without catching his foot on something and falling, the last thing Frank needed after the twelve hours he’d just had.
Fortune smiled, and Red stayed upright until he plucked back the top sheet and folded himself beneath it. “It’s nice,” he said, surprised gratitude, and yawned. “You got the right kind.”
“Sleep,” Frank said. He tossed the blanket over him like a closed lid and went back into the living room. There, he cleared the mug and plate from Red’s breakfast from the coffee table to the sink and stood parallel to the window he’d entered through the night before. The thought of leaving tempted him with an almost physical pull, but the thought of the ninjas pulled stronger. If they came back—
He sat on the couch and thought he’d lay down for minute to stretch his sore back muscles, took his boots off first because he wasn’t the kind of asshole to put his shoes on someone else’s furniture. He didn’t remember falling asleep.
Frank woke with darkness pressing down. The disorientation of waking in a strange place crashed suddenly into memory. Red. The ninjas. Shit, the ninjas. The ones that could’ve easily come back while he lay here dead to the world instead of keeping watch like he should’ve been.
Blinking his eyes open, Frank turned his head to the side and saw a dark-clad figure half-faded into the shadows of the room. His heart surged, and he sat up in an instant with a hand already on his holster, but didn’t get further before the figure spoke.
“Frank!” Red’s voice came out flu-thick.
The panic breathed out of him, and irritation took its place. “No. You’re sick. Go back to bed.”
“If I take a night off—” Red began.
“You’re not gonna die,” Frank said. “Now, go back to bed or I’ll—”
“What? Tell Karen and Foggy?”
Or I’ll tie you down, he didn’t finish, because that gave him time to think better of it. “Yeah,” he said. Didn’t want Red to get the wrong idea. Or the right one. Fuck.
“Frank,” Red drew out the syllable of his name, almost whining.
“Tell you what. You can get past me, and I’ll let you go.”
Red’s affronted noise turned into a cough that he had to go to the bathroom to spit out, splat against ceramic, winning Frank’s argument. When he returned, he tore his mask off—black scrap of it covered his face down to his nose, someone was gonna figure out he didn’t need to see to do what he did if he kept that up—and his gloves and the ropes around his arms, chucked into the corner of the room. The shape of him moved indistinct over the kitchen. Slam of a cabinet, turn of the tap, water filling a cup. That made Frank acutely aware of how much he needed to piss, and he pulled out his phone, squinted at the screen. He’d slept for nine hours; it was nearly ten.
Pushing himself up against his stiff muscles and sore joints, Frank used the facilities and felt his way over to the kitchen, groping along the wall for a light switch. It came on overhead, faint and yellow. He found a clean glass in the dish drainer and filled it, water washing over the sleep stickiness in his throat.
Opposite him, Red stood glowering. Frank refilled his glass. “How do I know you won’t leave as soon as I’m gone?” he asked.
“You don’t. You’re not my mom.” Petulant as a teenager. Ridiculous.
Water almost went up Frank’s nose as he laughed. “What?”
“She’d like you,” Red went on, rambling. “My mom.”
“What?” Frank repeated. Red’s dad was a boxer, prize-fighter. Single parent. Frank knew that and the Greek tragedy attached, and no word of it held a hint of any mother involved. He thought, if he’d thought about it, that she was gone permanently. Cautiously, he asked, “She’s around?”
“Yeah. You’re—no bullshit. She’d like that,” Red told him. “She’s a nun.”
Frank promptly choked on his water, sure for a second that he’d misheard. “Jesus,” he said, coughed. “That’s where you get it.”
“Where I got the Jesus?” Red leaned forward, body curling around his own joke. “I guess. She raised me at St. Agnes after my dad died. I didn’t know. I found out, uh, a year ago? Yeah, about a year ago, now.”
“Shit,” Frank said, and squinted at Red, swaying a little on his feet. “Why are you telling me this?”
“Probably because I drank like, half a bottle of cold medicine.” Red smiled dopily, and Frank’s anger rushed in like the tide.
The counter fell away from his back as he stepped towards Red, weaving and still smiling and so goddamn stupid. Ready to go out like this and die like this, would have if Frank hadn’t been here, but he was, and he was stuck now with that smile catching him like a fishhook. “Ok, that’s it,” he said, short and decisive. “Go to bed.”
Red rocked back on his heels. “You got me a bed.” Like he’d just remembered. New color rose in his cheeks, already red-blotchy and pale. “I should, uh, I should pay you—”
“The money’s not an issue,” Frank said, because it wasn’t. “You wanna pay me, go back to bed. Take the week off.”
“If I take a night off, people get hurt.”
Stubborn idiot. The wave of Frank’s anger crashed against the rocks, diffused. “I’ll take care of it,” he said, he kept saying, about the bodies, about the bed, and now this. “I won’t even kill anyone.”
“Frank, I—” Red interrupted himself with a deep, wet cough and turned to spit in the kitchen sink. Ran the water, and stood with his head bowed. “Ok,” he said. “Thank you.”
On his way out, after a weapons check and pilfered piece of bread from Red’s fridge, Frank saw him perched on the arm of the couch to take his boots off. “Thought I told you to get a better suit.”
“It’s not that easy,” Red’s voice told him. Red’s body told him, hunched in and defensive like an animal around a wound, that there was a story there, one that didn’t have a happy ending.
“Bed rest,” Frank said, and left through the window.
The night passed quietly, at least quietly for Hell’s Kitchen. Probably because the air flirted with freezing, Frank’s breath crystalizing in the clouds under every streetlight. Midnight, he scared off a would-be car thief jimmying the lock of an old Honda Accord he figured the owner couldn’t afford to lose, shouted, hey man, you need some help? you lose your keys? and sent him running. Two am, and he caught a robber making a fast getaway from a convenience store by the scruff of his—no, her—neck, let her go when he saw she had baby formula in her bag along with cash from the till. Her eyes went wide as the skull on Frank’s chest blazed out in the beam of his flashlight, and it sent her cowering and begging for a good minute before he parsed it out enough to get why.
“Oh, for chrissakes, I’m not gonna shoot you,” he said, and shoved her bag back at her and added some cash from his wallet besides, along with a piece of free advice to hit up Nelson & Murdock for whatever help she needed because it was what Red deserved. “Don’t go telling anyone, or I’ll know,” Frank snarled in a deeply insincere threat. She smiled as she agreed, showing him as transparent, so he said, “I mean it, I’m not a goddamn charity.” And still, she hugged him brief and strong around his waist before scampering off into the night, whatever, mission fucking accomplished.
Four a.m., and winter crept down into Frank’s lungs, and he lay in the back of his van with the heater running and clenched his fists until feeling returned to numb fingers. Six, and he got a breakfast sandwich at a drive-thru that would give him indigestion better than the gnashing emptiness in his stomach, ate it in the paper-thin dawn. His mind kept circling something like a vulture: the soft, dead shapes of Red’s black outfit laying in the corner of his living room. It followed him back to his safehouse, where Frank closed his eyes and slept.
Melvin Potter wasn’t the easiest guy to find, but Frank had overturned more rocks in less savory places. He spent a day tracking the rumors to a warehouse down by the docks, found the workshop under the opaque sheet of the skylight when he broke in. Smell of dust when he landed, and of chemicals like a cryptic warning he couldn’t identify. Frank settled into a dark corner shadow-like to wait.
A few hours later, a key turned in the lock and Melvin Potter stood in the doorway, stiff-limbed and much larger than Frank had expected, lumbered in and set a toolbox down on a metal table, clang. Two ways this could go, the hard way or the hard way, for Melvin or for him, and Frank knew which he preferred. He got his gun out and his skull out and shoved both in Melvin’s face, real close and personal.
His lower lip trembled like a leaf, and Frank just had time to think, No, he’s not gonna—before he did. The waterworks came on, and he started blubbering about some woman named Betsy.
Either Melvin should be thanking the academy, or his elevator didn’t reach the penthouse. Frank bet on the latter. The gun vanished beneath his jacket, a neat little magic trick, and he stepped back to give the guy about three feet of space. A stool bumped his hip and Frank sat in it to diminish himself, furious that none of his shake-downs had mentioned Melvin Potter was a child in a strongman’s body and chewing bitterly on his own behavior and the figure he knew he cut, a nightmare image.
Gradually, Melvin’s sobs trickled out into sniffles, and Frank cleared his throat. “Sorry for the, uh, theatrics,” he said, and explained what he wanted.
Melvin shook his head like he was trying to throw it off. “No, no, Betsy says I can’t, I can’t do nothing illegal no more.”
“Ok,” Frank said, no sudden movements, nice and easy. “This Betsy? You want to protect her, right? Keep her safe?” He invited Melvin’s nod, received it, continued. “That’s what he does. He protects people. Right now, I’m just trying to protect him.”
“He said that!” Melvin’s hand slammed down on the metal table, rattling objects, and Frank didn’t flinch. “He said he’d made sure nothing bad happened to Betsy, and then he was gone and Mr. Fisk come back, and he, and he—”
And the waterworks came back, rolling in like rain. Frank spoke again when they cleared. “You’re not doing a favor for him anymore,” he said. “You’re doing a favor for me. When I put ‘em down, they stay down. I’ll keep an eye on your Betsy.”
They talked specs, Frank’s arms folded over his chest, over a pile of fabric and raw materials, Melvin calm now and centered on his work.
“So, another suit? Like his old one?” he asked, blinking up at Frank owlishly like a kid who wanted to make sure he got the homework right.
“Almost. He needs a stronger helmet. Bulletproof,” Frank defined. Bang, he’d said, and the mask shattered like porcelain. He buried his sneaking guilt. “The rest of it, as strong as you can without sacrificing flexibility. Could use another one of those clubs, too. How much?”
You’d think he’d asked in a foreign language from the way Melvin was looking at him cross-eyed. “How much?”
Turned out, Red hadn’t paid him the last time. With all the pro bono shit he did, he probably couldn’t afford it, and that was fine. Frank could. He gave Melvin double, said, “Here. Get something nice for Betsy.” Which greased the deal nicely.
The nights grew colder, and patrols went cyclical, Red’s and his own. Frank counted the days marking down a week and blew back to Melvin’s workshop on a grey afternoon, through the door, this time. Found Melvin bouncing on his feet like a kid.
“It’s ready?” Frank asked.
“Yeah!” Melvin led him over to a table where the red suit lay out like something waiting to happen, going on about alloys and synthetic fibers and a lot of shit Frank didn’t understand.
At a gap in the flood, Frank smiled a little and held up a hand to stop him. “You know I didn’t get a word of that,” he said. “So long as it works.”
“It works,” Melvin said with confidence, and nodded critically at the suit. “It’s real different from the usual stuff.”
Frank raised an eyebrow. “Different how?”
“Most people who want protection, they want to blend in. This sticks out,” Melvin said.
“It needs to stick out. It sends a message,” Frank said, thinking of the white skull spray-paint-streaked across his own chest. Hope to the good people, fear to the bad ones.
Melvin’s critical look turned to him. “I made something else,” he said, and brought Frank over to a Kevlar vest strapped onto a headless mannequin. “Try it,” Melvin told him, pointed his finger like a bad caricature of a gun and mimed shooting it with one eye squeezed shut and his tongue sticking out the corner of his mouth.
Shrugging, Frank did, fired right into the center of its mass. Once the echo of it faded back out into silence, Melvin walked over and pried the silver point of the bullet out with a pocketknife and let it ping to the concrete floor, and the vest’s material sprung back into shape, unscathed.
Frank couldn’t think past his astonishment. He looked to the vest and to Melvin, practically vibrating with excitement as he waited for Frank’s reaction. Then Frank grinned, slow and wide. “Shit,” he said, walked to the vest, ran his hands over its strange surface. “The hell is this, some kinda Kevlar memory foam? No, you don’t have to tell me,” he said, before Melvin got started.
“So long as it works?” Melvin asked.
“Yeah,” Frank said. He didn’t usually smile for this long; his cheeks were starting to hurt.
Melvin beamed like electricity. “Would’ve done your picture,” he said, gesturing at Frank’s chest. “But I thought you might wanna do it yourself.”
“Thank you, Melvin,” Frank said, and meant it.
“You’re nice,” Melvin replied as he unbuckled the vest for transport.
Nice? Frank thought incredulously. He’d been called and accused of many things, but that was a new one. “I held you a gunpoint.”
“You’re nice like Daredevil. I told him about Betsy, and he didn’t hit me no more.” Melvin frowned like a flipped switch. “Is he mad at me? He sent his friend Mr. Murdock to get me out of jail, and Mr. Murdock said he wasn’t mad at me for fighting him, but sometimes people say they’re not mad when they are.”
“He’s not mad,” Frank said, and grinned again. “Mr. Murdock knows Daredevil real well.” And you’d have to be some kind of asshole to get mad at a guy like Melvin, and ok, Red was an asshole, but not that kind.
Frank packaged up the suit and his new vest in duffels, said goodbye to Melvin, and breezed back out onto the street.
Later, Frank drove over to Red’s place with the still-gray afternoon glittering around him, in the cars and windows and leafless trees. He took the stairs up instead of the fire escape and knocked on the door like a human being.
It was half past five, Red just home from work and still in most of his layers: red tie, starched white shirt, dress slacks and shoes, those red glasses he wore like his mask, like he needed to hide behind something. Just the suit jacket discarded, hung over the back of a kitchen chair. He looked better, no, he looked good, the first time Frank remembered seeing him when he wasn’t sick or exhausted or beaten to shit. A horrible bolt of desire went through him like lightning, and he almost turned tail and ran.
Behind his glasses, Red’s eyebrows went up in surprise. “Frank,” he said, and held the door open to let him in. Frank’s feet crossed the threshold into the apartment and, for better or worse, brought the rest of him along.
He set the duffel on the couch and inquired stupidly about Red’s health, and, “Any more ninjas?”
“No.” Red’s jaw worked, and his shoulders turned in under the weight of unanswered questions. “You?”
“Nah. Been quiet.” Frank mentally paced around it a few times, asked, “What do you think that was about? Besides, y’know, killing you.”
Red scratched nails along his scalp, his red hair stickling up in furrows. “I don’t know. I keep thinking—”
“Elektra.” The word sounded like it cut him. “That was—is—her name. You saw her.”
It clicked. “The one who—”
“Died, yeah.” Red placed a hand on the back of his kitchen chair, over his suit jacket, bracing for impact. “She came back.”
Frank felt the afternoon slipping sideways, and he stared at Red, hard. Rationally, Red was either fucking with him for some godforsaken reason or completely off his rocker, but the last few years had been host to all manner of irrational shit. “What happened?”
“They—” Red slid his glasses off and into his shirt pocket like he needed something to do with his hands. “They did something to her. She didn’t recognize me at first, and by the time she did . . .” He breathed in and out shakily. “She was with me when the building collapsed, I remember hold onto her, and—if I could get out, why couldn’t she?” he asked suddenly, harshly. “I keep thinking she’ll show up. Or they’ll find a body. Something.”
With neither, that left him in limbo, a kind of awful that Frank didn’t know. He stood like a statue, couldn’t move. Kept staring at Red’s face.
“I’m not crazy,” Red said flatly to his non-response. “Luke, Jess, and Danny were all there. You can ask them if you don’t believe me.”
“I believe you,” Frank said. Believing him beat arguing about his dead-undead girlfriend. Dead or alive, dead and alive, Frank would worry about the cat if the box ever opened. “You do right by her?”
Cocked head, confusion. “Excuse me?”
“Do you do right by her? By her memory?” Frank elaborated.
“I. I think so, yes,” Red offered, still wrinkled and off-base.
“Then that’s all you can do,” Frank said, and with that, slipped away from that topic and grabbed the duffel’s handle, transferred it from the couch to the table where Red stood alongside. “Found your guy.”
Red’s hands moved like pale, nervous animals as he unzipped it, ready to jerk back at any second. The helmet came out, and Frank saw the wideness of his surprise as he felt over the horns, and then his hands dove back in and ran over the rest of it. He pulled the chair back and sat in it, steepled his fingers before him. “You shouldn’t have,” he said quietly. “I told Melvin I wouldn’t bring him back into this.”
“I didn’t force him,” Frank said, a little hard, a little angry.
The silence in the room closed in like a growing bruise. Frank thought about leaving, didn’t. Thought about asking or telling or threatening Red to just wear the damn thing. Didn’t do that, either.
“When I was in college, at Colombia, there was this coffee shop I went to sometimes to study,” Red told him, apropos of nothing. “There was this girl working there, and I could tell she liked me, because, well” –a smile, self-deprecating—“I can tell. One night, we were talking as she closed up, and she asked me if I wanted a ride home. Foggy and I were living off-campus by then. So, she drove me home, pulled up to the curb, and before I opened the door, I asked her if she wanted to go out sometime.” Red laughed, and delivered the finale. “She had a boyfriend. No dice.”
Frank’s tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth, thick and useless.
“Point is,” Red continued, “Attraction doesn’t always equal intent.” Turned to Frank abruptly. “But you keep getting me things.”
A dark, squirming shame snapped around him like blackened teeth. Frank hated it, hated that Red would hear it in parts of his body he didn’t even know existed, every excruciating inch of how much he felt like a goddamn creep.
Red turned away, back towards the duffel and the red suit, too polite to mention it and almost worse. “What do you want, Frank?” he asked in a voice that you couldn’t argue with, that reached down Frank’s throat and pulled out the answer.
“Nothing.” Frank unstuck, and he stepped backwards in retreat. “For you to not die.”
But Red caught his hand against the table and wouldn’t let him go further, chair scraping behind him as he stood. Frank’s heart stepped up in time to meet that point of contact and he wanted to kill Red for doing this to him, wanted to hit him and wanted to hold him, wanted his hands on him and didn’t care how.
“You got me a bed,” Red reminded him like he could have possibly forgotten, and Frank was thinking, mattress, pillows, sheets, not the bed frame or box spring, breaking the whole of what he’d done down in manageable parts.
He looked down at Red’s hand over his, caught like a mouse in a trap. Could’ve pulled away, might have if he wasn’t sick-scared of what Red might do next. “What the hell do you want from—?”
“You got me a bed," Red interrupted him, and drew in a breath that brought bloodred color into his cheeks. “I want you to fuck me on it.”
The world squeezed down on him, the apartment, the afternoon. When it let go, Frank turned to water. “Oh,” he said, already listing towards Red, like the center of the earth. “Ok.”
“Wait for me in bed,” Red told him, touch of their foreheads and he finally let go of Frank’s hand and went past him, and Frank nodded speechlessly, helplessly, hand still on the table like the only thing holding him up.
The rosary watched him from the corner of the dresser, emaciated form of Jesus with his arms stretched out in agonized ecstasy. Frank kept counting the beads and kept losing his place, starting over. Listened to the water running in the bathroom and then galloping through the pipes like something in a hurry. Rubbed the red, silk sheets between his fingers as he sat on the bed in his shirt and underwear and considered distantly that they did feel nice, must be nice to sleep on, and then an image intruded of Red laid out against them, pale and arching. Frank bit his lip just in time for the semi-closed door to creak.
His head jerked up, and Red stepped in with one hand cinching the towel tight around his hip. The air felt heavy. Red licked his lips but didn’t say anything, dropped his towel and Frank’s eyes tracked the shape of it as it fell to the floor, back up Red’s body like he’d done in his safehouse weeks ago, except that he could look, now. At Red, naked, the lines of his body and his half-hard cock flushed with blood, and this was going full-kilter, too fast, and they hadn’t even kissed yet—
Red fixed that quickly, climbed into bed and took Frank’s face in his hands and kissed him and kissed him and kissed him. Frank couldn’t draw in a proper breath, didn’t want to. He let Red peel of his shirt and boxers like peeling off his skin, leaving him raw.
“How do you want it?” he asked, and Red showed him. Kissed him once more, soft, lingering, leaned over and extracted lubricant and a condom from the nightstand, pushed Frank on his back and straddled his hips. Frank fingered him open slow, watched every tic on his face like markers showing him where he was going.
“Ok.” Red reached back and touched Frank’s hand, the fingers inside him. “That’s it, ok,” he said, and Frank drew his fingers out gently. Craned his body up towards Red’s to kiss him, let go to rip the condom wrapper open, sharp, staticky sound, and rolled it onto his cock, took Red’s hip and guided him down.
Time narrowed to a point, and Frank held his breath until he bottomed out and watched Red’s face go slack as he adjusted and started to move. Red, Red, Frank thought, even without his devil suit and his tie and his glasses, even with his hair still wet and weighted down from the shower almost brown in the light; he blushed red from his face right down to his chest, and Frank scraped nails over it to see him shudder, kissed one of the white, puckered scars there to hear the hitch of his breath.
Frank trailed his hand up to Red’s face, cupping his jaw. He stuck a thumb in his open, panting mouth. Red bit it. Frank pulled his hand back and slapped him, though it was more of a tap. A warning. But Red laughed breathily, so he did it again, harder, and Red let out a little oh while his dick jerked. Frank felt himself grin, feral.
The third time, though, Red caught his wrist before his palm could make contact. “Some of us have work in the morning,” he said, his voice strained.
“Shame. Bet you’ve never—gone in—with bruises,” Frank got out between thrusts.
“Rather not explain that one.” But Red smiled as he said it, and his hips moved faster.
And, oh, Frank liked the idea of that, liked the thought of sending Red into work or court all marked up and forcing him to make excuses. Maybe next time. Red’s face off limits, Frank got the bottle and more lube on his hand, too much, a hasty mess, and jerked him off instead. Saw his mouth fall open, red and swollen, it had no business being that red, and pulled him down and kissed him as he started to come, kissed the red moans right out of his mouth.
Frank shuddered, said, “God,” his voice faint and raw, and Red far too gone to make some smart comment about blasphemy. He sped up and finished a minute later in the now dead weight of Red’s body, heard the soft noise Red made and the way his soft dick twitched when he did, like his senses let him feel Frank’s orgasm like his own and come again.
They lay there after in the muffled twilight, cleaned up with a damp towel now tossed in the hamper, the condom tied off neatly in the trash. Frank took in their legs tangled together in the red sheets. The sound of the city outside the closed window, a world away.
“You know I’m not gonna stop,” Frank heard himself say, the thought out before he knew he had it. “I’m not gonna stop doing what I do.”
“Don’t be stupid. That’s not what this is about,” Red told him.
Frank looked at him the best he could, the room and his face mostly in shadow. “That doesn’t bother you?”
“It didn’t stop me.” Red pressed half his face into the pillow, admitted, “I’ve wanted you since the hospital.” Then, he smiled so broadly that Frank could feel it when he kissed him. “I was never trying to embarrass you, you idiot.”
“I got that,” Frank said, too blissed out to feel stupid, or mad when Red laughed.
“You were really just—” He tucked his face close to Frank’s neck, exhaled through his nose in a way that tickled. “I thought maybe you hadn’t been with a man before, or something.”
If Frank had more energy, he might have hit him for that, if only a little. He flicked Red’s arm instead. “You’re not my first rodeo, you smug bastard,” he said, and felt the next thing in his throat like a bubble ready to burst. “You are—”
“I haven’t been with anyone since my wife—since my wife,” Frank told him, and Red pulled back and showed the surprised horror on his face, the reason Frank hadn’t said anything before. He ran his fingers through Red’s hair, said, “It’s ok. I’m glad it was you.”
Something in Red’s face crumpled, and he rolled on top of Frank and kissed all the unspoken things into his mouth. Frank watched the light of the evening outside deepen into night and ran a hand down Red’s spine, relieved just to touch him. Presently, Red heard Frank’s stomach rumble and laughed and got up to order food, and Frank stayed the night.
“Did you ever see Star Wars when you were a kid?” Frank asked. He shot another of the Tinkerer’s deathray robots out of the air, a sphere about half the size of his head.
Next to him, Red took out another with his baton, sending it slamming into the wall of the warehouse and screaming into sparks as it died. “No? Why?”
“That’s a shame. You should’ve seen Star Wars,” Frank said. Lined it up and put a bullet through two bots in a row, two birds with one stone. “So, there’s this scene where Obi-Wan is training Luke—”
“You know I have no idea who that is.” Red threw his baton like a boomerang, bots careening into each other. Trying to outdo him, the showoff.
Frank swore under his breath and kept picking them off in ones and twos. “Ok. Obi-Wan is like that Stick guy you told me about, except less of an asshole. Luke is you, except about ten years older than you were”—and if Stick weren’t dead already, Frank might’ve had to kill him for that—“and, uh, less of an asshole.”
Catching his baton in one hand, Red flipped him off with the other, and Frank chuckled.
“Anyway. Obi-Wan put a helmet on Luke and was teaching him to block these laser bolts from this bot that kinda looked like these things,” Frank explained. “Just reminded me of it, that’s all.”
The last of the bots fell sizzling to the ground, and Red stood with one foot on the pile like a conquest. “He’s long gone by now,” he said ruefully. “You wanna call it a night?”
“Sure,” Frank said. He pulled the van around, and they changed into civilian clothes and walked towards an all-night diner with the wind blowing the night back against them, hemmed in by buildings and streets.
“How’d you get into being a lawyer?” Frank asked, the hour late enough to turn in but still early enough for something to happen, making him conversational.
Red bumped his shoulder as they walked. “My dad. He wanted me to go to college. Use my words to solve things, not my fists.”
“Huh. Good thing you can multitask,” Frank mused, and Red bumped his shoulder a little harder.
“What about you?” he asked. “How’d you get into your line of work?”
“My old man,” Frank said, a similar beginning.
Curiously, Red turned to him. “Military man?”
“Nah. Truck driver. Asshole.” Frank kicked a pebble down the sidewalk. “See, I wanted to go seminary school—”
“Seminary school? You? Seminary school?”
“Yeah, yeah. Let me finish. He wouldn’t let me because he thought it’d make me gay. All this shit about the priests and the Catholic church was coming out back then, and he didn’t know the difference between homosexuality and pedophilia. Like I said, asshole.” Frank reigned in his resentment, evened his breaths. “’Course, he also thought college would make me gay. So, the marines it was.”
A laugh caught Red and doubled him over, stopped him walking and forced Frank to wait. “What?” Frank asked, on the verge of getting angry. “What?”
“So, he sent you—” Red laughed again. “He sent you to spend years showering around a bunch of really fit, naked men?”
And Frank laughed, too. “Yeah,” he said, and threw an arm around Red’s shoulders, tugged him along roughly.
“Seminary school,” Red repeated scathingly, and Frank cuffed him in the ribs.
They scuffled their way through the door of the diner and took a corner booth. Someone had paid the jukebox to belt out “Cherry Pie” and Frank ordered a slice for Red as a joke, stole bites off his plate as Red tried halfheartedly to stab his hand with the fork and kept missing.
The waitress’s nametag said ABBY in label-printed block letters; she was middle-aged and talked to them rapid and flighty. “So, how long have you been dating?” she asked overbright, probably had a kid or a kid’s friend who came out as gay and now had to think about something concretely that had always been abstract.
“About three months,” Red told her with a cherry-red grin.
It’s only been three months? Frank thought, colliding head-on with, It’s already been three months? The flat landscape of his life before this, before Red, marked a clear delineation.
Back at his van, Frank closed them in the back and kissed the sticky red taste out of Red’s mouth and got him going, and Red folded onto his knees and took Frank out of his pants and sucked him off sloppy and eager. And it was good, Red’s cheeks hollowed around him, red hair sticking up when Frank carded through it, unfocused eyes open. Good enough that Frank might’ve seen stars a little when he came, but after was better, Red hard and heavy in his mouth, holding himself up against the wall of the van if only barely, scrabbling at his head, his shoulder: “Frank, oh god, Frank,” whining when he spilled into his mouth and Frank swallowed him down.
Sprawled out in the back, with Red’s head against his shoulder, Frank intertwined their fingers and felt the satisfied thrum of his body like an engine. I’m gonna fall in love with him, Frank thought suddenly. He knew it, the feeling of the tilting precipice beneath his feet. Red turned to him with his brow pinched and his mouth already open, and Frank kissed him before he could ask about whatever change he heard or felt in Frank’s body and his beating heart. He should leave, he thought, before the stupid thing happened. Instead, he went back to Red’s apartment and his red silk sheets and watched his sleeping face, smoothed out in the streetlight coming through the windows.
I’m gonna fall in love with him. Frank’s mind played the thought again like a song on repeat. It’s gonna suck. He kissed him, and Red smiled in his sleep, and whatever edge he’d been holding onto slipped away.
New York was the city where anything could happen, and anything often did. This time, the latest high-powered slap-fight caused an explosion that knocked half of Red’s cabinets askew and sent his plates and glasses shattering across his kitchen floor like some pretentious kid’s idea of modern art.
“If I’d wanted this shit, I’d be living in Cali-fucking-fornia,” Frank complained to no one as he set the cabinets right the next day while Red was at work. That fixed half the problem, and Frank got the other half from a home goods store, red set of ceramic dishware, plates and bowls, and mugs, and eight decent drinking glasses with decorative, wavy glass and a circle of red around the rims. Most of Red’s old shit had been chipped or mismatched anyway, Frank thought as he carried the boxes swaying up the steps, careful of where he put his feet, as they blocked the front and center of his field of vision. He pictured the bubble of air in the middle of a toolbox level and kept himself and the boxes even.
That might’ve been a blessing, because he couldn’t see when he went fumbling with the lock and through the door of Red’s apartment, not until he set the boxes down on the table and got an eyeful of the woman sitting on the couch. If he’d seen her earlier, he might’ve dropped the boxes and broken all his hard work. Frank reached for his belt and the gun he always carried, but she stood fluidly and rose her hands in surrender.
The gun didn’t scare her; she didn’t even look at it. And why would it, when she’d died at least twice before. “Hello,” she said pleasantly. “I apologize for the intrusion, but there’s no need for that.”
“I’ll decide that,” Frank said, and held his gun steady.
She shrugged diffidently, hands still in the air. “I don’t believe we’ve met. My name is Elektra Natchios, and—”
“I know,” Frank said. He’d looked up old pictures, watched old videos. Learned what she looked like, preparing for this possibility. Still, a picture wasn’t the real thing. He looked her over, assessing. Pulled back hair, black and red outfit like the one she’d died in—one he’d seen more recently than that, on a dummy in Melvin’s workshop.
She saw the gathering storm clouding his face and headed it off at the pass. “I haven’t harassed our friend Mr. Potter,” she said. “I went through an intermediary and paid him what I owed. Now, would you mind putting the gun down? My arms are getting tired.”
Frank decided he very much would mind and didn’t move.
Elektra pursed her lips, rolled her eyes. “Have it your way.”
“What do you want?” Frank asked.
“I have some personal business to take care of. I wanted to check on Matthew first.”
Now she wanted to check on him, Frank thought, rage and incredulity. Now, and not at any time in the last two years he’d been mourning her. “He ain’t here.”
“In the middle of the afternoon on a Wednesday? I didn’t think he was.” Elektra rolled her shoulders, unconcerned with Frank’s gun and the time she’d been missing and the rest of it. “I said I was here to check on him, not speak with him.”
“Ok.” Frank chewed on that for a minute. “Why?”
Elektra raised an eyebrow at his gun, looked at him levelly, and sat on the arm of the couch. Lowered her hands but kept them in sight, folded across her lap. “Because he’d want me to do things his way. We tried that before, and do you know what happened?”
If she wanted to hurt him, she could have done it before he set the boxes down. She could quite possibly still do so now. Frank lowered his gun but kept it in his hand, a calculated response.
“I died,” Elektra said, though he hadn’t asked, and her smile was very sharp. “Twice.” Standing again, she looked to the boxes Frank left on the table and then around the apartment like she wanted to map it to memory. “Has he tried to change you yet?”
“What?” Frank asked, and immediately regretted it. He didn’t trust her, the things she said, the slipping, economical way she moved, and the only thing he should be asking was for her to get the fuck out.
“I’ve heard of you, Frank Castle. Most people have. You don’t do what he does.” She inspected her nails as she spoke, her tone almost bored. “Has he asked you to stop?”
The hair rose on the back of Frank’s neck. His eyes flicked over Elektra’s body, hidden beneath Melvin’s gear like a sheathed weapon, and knew she’d never been in any danger from him. He didn’t think she could outshoot him, but she didn’t have to in a closed, familiar space, and hand-to-hand, something told Frank he couldn’t match her.
None of your goddamn business, Frank thought, didn’t say. If he did, she might go after Red next. “No,” he said at last.
“Hm. Maybe he’s grown,” Elektra mused, and crossed over the to kitchen window that Frank just now realized was open. “I think you’re good for him, Frank Castle,” she announced as she perched on the sill. “Don’t change.”
She left like vanishing, there one second and gone the next. Frank checked out the window, but couldn’t see her and didn’t expect to. He pulled the window shut and flipped the latch over to locked, went to unpack the dishes he’d bought and kill time until Red got home.
He knew. Soon as he stepped in the door, he knew, and Frank didn’t make him wait or ask. “Yeah, it was her,” he said. “You’re not imagining it.”
“What—what happened?” Red asked, his voice small.
Frank told him all save the last, the bit about change and death and resurrection. “I think she’s gonna do something bloody,” he finished, didn’t add that he thought her right to do it, that he was pissed at her on Red’s behalf, for a lot of things, but not for that. “She didn’t want you to stop her.”
After, Red sat at the table with his head in his hands, and Frank sat with him as he cursed her, and then as he cried. When he was done, face wet and eyes red, Frank asked if he wanted to spar, a shit distraction, a worse condolence.
They pushed the living room furniture against the walls, and Red changed into his gym clothes and met Frank in the middle. He came at him straight and hit hard, none of his fancy ninja shit, all old-school boxer, blood on Frank’s teeth and a bruise forming on his ribs because he knew Frank could take it. And Frank hit back, blow to Red’s temple to knock him off balance, kick to his stomach to send him stumbling back because he knew what Red needed. It devolved quickly to Frank on his back on the floor with all the wind knocked out of him, Red holding his hands to the floor and licking the blood out of his mouth.
He moved his mouth over to Frank’s ear, said, “I wanna fuck you,” and Frank nodded jerkily and said, incoherent, “Yeah, I’ll just—yeah, ok.”
Red never hurt him when they fucked; Frank didn’t think he could. His senses let him know Frank’s body better than Frank himself, and Frank never had to tell him to ease up, to adjust his angle, to stop doing something in favor of something else. Red just knew. So, when Frank joined him in bed, his insides wet and shivering clean, when Red pushed in from behind and fucked all his anger and grief out into Frank’s body, none of it hurt. Frank moaned and held onto the headboard, the feeling of Red driving into him sparking down his spine, and then Red got a hand around him and his world whited out. Dimly, he felt the stutter-stop of Red finish as they both collapsed.
A few minutes later, he came to with Red plastered across his back, softening cock still in him. He lay there boneless as Red got up and got a towel to clean them both, closed fingers around Red’s wrist when he finished to pull him back down. Rolled to face him in bed and kissed him gently.
Sighing, Red closed his eyes and touched their foreheads together, and Frank thought, Someday, I’m going to kill someone, and it won’t be in self-defense, or to save someone else, or a as a last resort, or something you can forgive, and all of this will burn to ash.
Someday. Frank lay an arm across Red’s waist, held him soft and close. But not today.
If not for Karen, Frank might’ve gotten away with it forever, or at least a lot longer than he did. She twirled in one afternoon just as Red got home from work, in a flurry of rapid-fire questions about the previous night’s events, something she wanted to spin into a good story for the paper without broadcasting Red’s identity the world.
He tossed the questions back like a game, and they hammered it out between them. Frank half-listened, amused, most of his attention on making dinner, and almost didn’t notice when, in the middle of it, Karen stopped.
“I see you’ve got a theme going,” Karen noted, and Frank froze in the middle of sliding diced onions into the pan. Gravity did the rest for him, and he turned and saw what she did, everything red. Sheets in the laundry basket next to the couch, waiting to be folded, soft red blanket on the couch itself that Frank bought because the old one was scratchy; red plates and fancy glasses on the table in anticipation of dinner; Red himself in one of the red microfiber shirts and red sweats that Frank got him in the fall when it started to get cold out, the ones he liked to change into after work.
Appraisingly, Karen swiveled her gaze to Frank and then back to Red. “Did you not know that like, everything in your apartment is red?” she asked.
And, dropping that bomb, she finished her questions and left soon after.
Frank added ground beef to the pan and broke it up busily, went stiff as Red came up behind him. “Frank?”
“Yeah?” Frank asked, not looking at him, for all the fucking good that did.
“All that stuff you got . . .” he trailed off, likely tallying it in his head. “Was any of it not red?”
The beef browning, Frank went to the sink and washed his hands, dried them with a red dish towel, feeling very foolish and exposed. “The glasses, uh, they just have a little bit at the top,” he said.
He stole a look at Red, couldn’t avoid it any longer, saw him frowning and bemused. “Why?” he asked.
“I just like how you look in it,” Frank told him, maybe always had, and maybe he’d let it get away from him and now every damned thing in the apartment was red, including his rapidly heating face.
“Oh.” Red laughed. “Ok,” he said, and kissed Frank sweetly. He stepped away blushing, the right kind of red, Frank thought and he closed in and kissed him back, the best kind of all.