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Bess Will Outlive (and Outsmart) Us All

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"Boy, what have you done to yourself now!"

Matt Murdock's bruised face winced, and then he flinched as though that expression caused him pain. Bess Mahoney did not give him one ounce of sympathy. These "accidents" had been happening more and more; she knew that he needed some kind of help, but Matthew was too damn stubborn to ask for it.

Bess had been minding and nagging Matt Murdock and Franklin Nelson for years, the latter for almost his entire life, and she wasn't about to stop now that they were both lawyers and all grown up. In her experience, it was the grown children who needed regular sound scoldings, otherwise they would settle into far worse habits than leaving chewing gum under tables or staying up all night reading comic books.

"It was an accident, Bess, nothing for you to worry about," he said, trying to sooth her.

Just the word "accident" got her blood boiling now, and she raised a finger to his unseeing eyes, ready to give him a good talking to, when Franklin came to his defense.

"Yeah, we've been doing some furniture rearranging at the office, and he's just got to get familiar with the new layout," Franklin said as he entered her apartment, a bag of fresh cigars in his hand.

They were good boys, Franklin and Matt. Brett got all huffy about defense attorneys and some such, but Bess knew her son liked them both well enough, otherwise he wouldn't allow them within a hundred miles of her. Good boys, all of them.

Which is why she fixed Matt with her sternest glare, and he could tell, she knew, because he ducked his head like all of her children did when they were in trouble. As Foggy closed the front door, Matt reached for her hands, and she put them in his reach.

"I appreciate the concern, but Foggy's right —"

"Listen here, you don't get to tell me what to worry about! I've been worrying about myself and my kids since you were a toddling baby. And speaking of worry, you haven't been visiting as often as you promised me to, and I understand there's been serious upheaval in this town of ours, but that's no excuse."

Matt's lips quirked up at the corners briefly, but he knew better than to smile when he was being told off. "You are absolutely right, Bess, I'm sorry." He leaned in to give her a kiss on the cheek, and when he stepped back, he looked appropriately remorseful. Good.

She broke into a smile and reached up to stroke his injured face. "All right, honey, you sit yourself down at the table. There's some fresh bread and butter waiting. I'll get the casserole out of the oven."

"Thank you, I'm sure it's delicious — it, hm, it certainly smells wonderful," Matt said as he took off his jacket.

Franklin coughed loudly then, brandishing his bag of cigars. "C'mon, don't I get a little love? Who else supplies you with contraband like this?"

Bess laughed. "No one, 'cause they're all determined to mother their own mother."

"And I know you're going to outlive us all, Bess." His grin was infectious. She grabbed his gift and pulled him down to kiss both his cheeks. She glanced in the bag, and her grin widened. Oh, these were good — she would have lit one up right away, but Matthew couldn't stand the smell of cigar smoke, so she settled for taking a deep sniff, making approving noises.

"Knew you would like these ones," Franklin said smugly.

She gave him a playful smack on the shoulder. "Enough of this shameless bribery, you're forgiven. Go sit down and let me feed you. Lord only knows what you two live off of, bachelors that you are."

"Dinner hasn't even started, and we're already on the wedding talk," Franklin complained. "Really, Bess?"

She dismissed him with a wave of her hand as Matt chuckled.

Bess took her time serving dinner, enjoying the sound of the two men talking amongst themselves, poking fun at each other while trying to determine which of them made the worse bachelor.

"Clearly, you're bachelor summa cum laude, you jerk," Franklin protested. "You haven't had a serious relationship since Greek Girl, if two months even counts as serious."

"You order more take-out than I do, and every time I go to your place, I'm ankle deep in pizza boxes and old laundry," Matt countered. "The physical evidence trumps in this case, counsellor."

"Oh, you wanna get legal on this? Yeah? Because I will so lawyer you, Murdock, I'm gonna lawyer you so hard—"

"Enough of the dirty talk now, I'll not have that while we're eating," Bess ordered as put the plates down in front of them.

She had to hold back a smirk as Franklin froze and then began spluttering out reasons why he and Matt were not dirty talking, Bess, God no. She saw Matt's eyes flutter behind his dark glasses, though he started grinning as Franklin wound down his ramble by grabbing Matt's shoulder — gently, she noted. "And while I find it flattering that you think that I can land a handsome lawyer, Bess, I think we've just established that Matt is the bigger consummate bachelor between the two of us, and there's no way he's ready to settle down yet."

Matt broke up laughing. Bess sat back with her own plate, smiling at them both.

It had been a hard few months. Losing Elena had been difficult; the woman had been both a wonderful person and a good friend, and seeing her death's effect on Franklin had been almost as devastating as her own grief. His guilt consumed him, and Bess wasn't entirely convinced he'd fully let it go, even with the men responsible either dead or behind bars. Not long after Elena's funeral, she'd given Franklin a kind yet firm reproach, urging him to think better of himself, but he had only shaken his head and withdrawn further.

Now, his eyes showed a hard-won wisdom. He'd aged a decade in a fraction of that time.

Her heart hurt thinking of all that Brett had been through with his fellow officers arrested or dying around him. Of Matthew and Franklin working hard to expose Wilson Fisk even as the monster ripped their city apart. She didn't know all the details, had only gleaned a general picture from Brett, and then nagged a bit more out of Franklin. Matt's evasion tactics had reached Olympic quality heights recently, so Bess hadn't even bothered interrogating him.

"When am I going to meet this Karen you all talk so much about? Seems like a nice girl, and tough, too, if she can put up with you two on a daily basis." As she spoke, she added some more casserole to Matt's plate. He'd bulked up over the years, but she remembered his bad college habit of eating only when his stomach loudly demanded it.

"Heck yeah, she's awesome," Franklin said enthusiastically, swallowing down a mouthful of food. Then his eyes narrowed. "Wait, I'm not bringing her here if you start in on the wedding talk again."

"Karen's already heard it from Mr. Cleaver on Wednesday, and Ms. Vanzetti on Friday," Matt said. "Bess, you keep on going. At some point one of us will settle down, and then you can start nagging us about kids."

Bess poked Matt in the arm, and when his jaw didn't clench in pain, she slapped him there. "Boy, you make fun of me, but I just want someone to keep an eye on you two. That night I had to come bail Franklin out of jail—"

"Oh, here we go," Franklin groaned.

" —for punching that terrible Ned Something-Or-Other, with the shark tattoo on his neck, and getting to the station to find you were there, too, because you had been the one to push Ned Shark Tattoo's behind through one of Josie's windows—"

"I maintain that he slipped on the beer that he spilled, which was what started the whole thing," Matt interjected.

" —had me thinking that if you had a good girl or boy to take care of you, then you two wouldn't need to be bothering old ladies for rides home from the police station," Bess finished, a second slap landing on Matt's forearm. "You are each other's emergency contacts, which is silly, because you both find the same kind of trouble, all the damn time. If this Karen is lending a hand with that, then praise be."

"Bess, it was one time, one." Franklin jabbed his fork in the air for emphasis. "But you know what? Fine. I solemnly swear to never punch out drunk jackasses who don't know not to pick fights with blind people, and Matt promises not to, uh, watch as someone that he in no way pushed breaks a window with his butt."

Bess raised her eyebrows. "I think it is far more likely that one of you get married than that both of you will never again need me to pick up your sorry behinds from that station."

Matt's laughter rang throughout the apartment, his bright smile wider than ever. "I, I think she's right, Foggy."

Franklin pointed at Matt with the fork. "Way to bail on me, Murdock. "

"No, bailing on you would be excusing myself to go to the bathroom, thereby leaving you to Bess's tender mercies." Matt stood up, leaning down to drop a kiss onto the top of Bess's head. "Don't be too mean to him and send him crying out the door — he's my ride home."

"Oh, screw you, Matt!" Franklin yelled to his friend's retreating back while Bess chuckled at them.

Bess waited until she heard the bathroom door shut and then leaned in close. "How's he doing, really?"

Franklin sighed, shrugging and playing with his napkin. "They're just accidents, Bess. You know Matt, annoyingly independent, refuses to ask for help with the big stuff." But there was more to it, Bess saw that clearly in the weariness of his gaze. Franklin's worry for Matt had increased hugely.

"And you, Franklin, how about you?" She reached over to cover his fussing hands with one of hers. "I just like to tease you, boy, you know. I really want you to feel free to come here whenever. You did a good thing, you and Matt. Lord knows what would have happened to Brett if all those crooked cops had kept their jobs."

Franklin smiled at her, sweet and grateful. "I know. My mom sends you Christmas cards 'cause she knows you help keep me in line." He turned his hands over to hold hers between them. "I should have come visited you more, after Elena …"

"Hush now, you don't need to apologize, we've talked about this." Bess hated the slump in his shoulders, the downturned expression on his face, so she switched topics immediately. "You know, it's been so long, I feel like I should tell you — Brett and I have a bet going. Looks like I'll be winning, since he was so sure you two were going to get hitched the minute the marriage law passed."

Franklin choked on nothing, and Bess gave herself a mental pat on the back — that was twice in one visit.

"Wait, what — Bess, you gotta stop doing that." Franklin pushed his hair back from his face, his fingers trembling slightly. His voice dropped to a soft whisper. "I don't get it, you're the only one—"

"Franklin, when I picked your sorry butt up from that station years ago, you crawled into the back of my car with Matt, fussed over him like he was a hurt puppy you'd found on the side of a road, and when you two passed out back there, you cuddled like you were both puppies. Pathetic, drunk puppies drooling in the back seat of my Chevy."

Franklin's wide eyes were darting between her and the bathroom door at the end of the hall. His voice dropped even lower, and she had to lean in further to hear him. "Um, no duh, Bess, Matt's been my best friend since forever. I love him like a buddy, and, you know, we've been picking up chicks together since college, 'cause that's what we both like, and yeah, there's nothing else, ever." She loved it when Franklin was nervous; he started sounding exactly like he did when he was nine years old and trying to explain why he kept getting into scrap-ups with her Brett.

Bess smirked wickedly. "You were petting his hair. I think you may have kissed it, or maybe you were just snoring into it — either way, you had a mouthful."

There was a clattering sound from the bathroom, Matt shouting an apology. Franklin closed his eyes, a soft, pained sound escaping him.

"If I can't get you two somebody, then you may as well be that somebody to each other — don't know if it'll help any, but you'll certainly be the cutest pair of lawyer spouses the world has ever seen." Bess patted Franklin's cheek. She then stood up to start clearing away dinner in preparation for coffee and dessert.

Matt came back from the bathroom, and Bess gave him a once-over. "You all right there, sweetheart?"

"Yes, of course, I just squeezed the soap bar a little too hard, and it shot out of my hands."

Franklin was tearing his napkin to shreds, eyes focused intently on his task, but Matt was smiling brightly again, as though he had just heard some fabulous joke, or maybe because he could smell the cinnamon rolls she had been keeping warm in the oven after she'd taken out the casserole.

"Yes, this is what I came for," he said, almost moaning out the words when she put a big steaming roll in front of him, the frosting piled high and dripping.

Bess nudged him with her hip as she walked around to place a plate in front of Franklin. "Of course it was, otherwise I know you have better things to do than to spend your evening with an old woman."

"Bess, there is nothing old about you, other than your wise, wise words," Matt said.

Franklin exhaled loudly. "Wise and painful. But I suppose humiliation is worth this. It's also worth Brett delaying all the paperwork I need from him for another week once he finds out about those cigars."

Bess chuckled again. She watched with great satisfaction while they devoured those rolls as if they hadn't just eaten an entire casserole.

She hadn't ever been much of a homemaker, working almost seven days a week to support her children, but she made it a point to learn how to cook, and cook well. Food was an easy way to make those she loved happy. She often hadn't been able to tuck her kids in at night, but she always made sure there was something tasty for their school lunches the next day.

And cooking made her pretty damn happy, too; she absolutely loved cinnamon rolls, almost as much as she loved her cigars.

"Man, I'm so going to rub in Brett's face the fact that he missed out on cinnamon rolls," Franklin said between huge bites. "That's what he gets for delaying my case."

Franklin and Brett had never gotten along as children, but Franklin's mother was a friend of hers, and Franklin himself had been a funny kid — just sometimes his brand of funny didn't work on other children, like Brett. They had a begrudging friendship now, and Brett actually liked Matt quite a bit, which had helped him to get to know Franklin better.

It wasn't too hard to fall in love with Matthew, with his adorable smile, and easy, self-deprecating charm. Bess had been head over heels since the first time Matt had come with her to her church, even though she was Anglican and he was Catholic; he'd held her hand and prayed with her for over an hour.

Bess had whipped her kids into fine, upstanding members of society — none of them made a lot of money, but they were cops, social workers, and teachers, all working to make the world a better place. And Bess saw those same qualities in Matt and Franklin, who lived closer to her than many of her kids did, and were sweet, lovable, and in need of a good whipping into shape every once in a while.

The evening passed by with warm conversation and plenty more laughter. Franklin was joking more than usual, and Matt was laughing harder than normal at his friend's wisecracks.

Bess wondered if she would finally be collecting on her bet with Brett (and with half of the Nelson clan; Josie; Marcella, the owner of the Thai place close by; Benny, the taxi driver who lived down the hall; and a dozen other Hell's Kitchen residents who had known the Nelson-Murdock duo for varying amounts of years).

She was washing dishes (after fighting with Franklin over them, because he did not know how to scrub properly, damn it, sit down) when she heard Matt say something that had the other man coughing.

Bess made jokes about her age, but she was only sixty-five, and her hearing was better than it had ever been — though she often pretended to mishear or to not hear at all. It was a handy little trick she used on her kids, and on Matt and Franklin. She washed a little more slowly, straining her ears to hear their almost-whispers.

" —are not talking about this now."

"Foggy, we will never talk about this unless—"

"That's fine by me! Ever since the whole …" Franklin must have made a gesture or some such, and Bess had no idea to what he was referring — putting away Fisk maybe? " … You've been nice enough not to mention it, because you know it's freaking embarrassing, Matt. Let's just keep pretending you buy my lies, that you haven't known all along, because otherwise I'll have an aneurysm, I will. Watch me. Right here."

Bess finished her last plate, her eyes glancing about the kitchen to find something else to wash. She grabbed a few of the clean dishes and scrubbed them again, extra hard, as though some remaining dirt clung stubbornly to them.

"Well, if Bess knows, and Brett knows, then maybe it's finally time to stop pretending that you and I don't know. Because, Foggy, I—"

"No, no, no. And no again. Damn it, Matt, you're my best friend, so please, please, don't say another word, I'm begging you."

"You're assuming that the words are going to be 'sorry, not interested'—"

"Um, do you remember how you reacted when I called you good-looking? Because do. Vividly. And all the other times after, when—"

"Damn it, that was years ago, and you're wrong, you idiot."

Silence.

Bess's hands kept washing automatically, scrubbing and putting dishes on the rack. She tried to keep herself as unobtrusive as possible, even humming a little like she always did while cleaning.

"Nothing to say now, Foggy?" Matt sounded uneasy for the first time that night. His frustration was gone, hesitancy taking its place. "Foggy?"

More silence. Then Franklin cleared his throat, whispering, "When we get out of here, we will talk. Lots of talking."

"Talking." Matt's voice had dropped an octave, a lower rumble than his already gravelly tone. "We should. It's what I was trying to—"

"Okay. I heard you. Let's, uh, shelve it for now. God, get that look off your face, it is not appropriate for dinner with Bess."

"I, I have no idea what you're talking about."

"Yeah, sure you don't, you charming bastard."

Bess's face was almost hurting from the past few minutes of solid, non-stop grinning. She re-washed one more plate, and when she walked back out to the boys, they were also smiling unbearably wide smiles, but trying to hide it, like the love-struck idiots that they were.

Oh, it took everything in her not to cuddle them up into her arms.

"It's getting late, and this lady needs her sleep. You've tired me out," she said, reaching to run her fingers through Matt's dark hair. She couldn't help herself, so she reached down and hugged him carefully, mindful of his injuries.

"Of course, Bess, we'll let you rest," Matt said, hugging her in return. "Next time let Foggy help you with the dishes — that casserole probably stuck to the plates like glue."

"I've got plenty of strength in these arms, Matthew, stop volunteering your partner for more work." She thrilled at saying Foggy's title, knowing it carried a deeper meaning, or that it soon would.

"Ah, story of our lives, Bess — Matt stands there and looks pretty to attract clients, and then I do the rest," Franklin said, sounding put-upon, but the smile that kept pulling at his lips ruined the effect.

"And I want you both back here next month, understand me?" she said, brooking no argument.

They both said, "Yes ma'am," at the same time, and then shared foolish grins. Bess wondered if they were going to try to hide this from her for a time, and if they knew how very obvious they were. If it wasn't clear before, it was definitely plain to see now. Oh, Franklin would make a blind joke here, the thought of which had her looking forward to their no-doubt stumbling confession in the near future.

Once they were all packed up with extra cinnamon rolls, and Bess had kissed them each on the cheek, she grabbed Franklin's hand and squeezed it tightly.

He looked at her questioningly, his eyes light and clear of worry. Her affection for him was resting pleasantly heavy in her chest. "Honey, you take happiness wherever you find it, all right? It's a precious thing in this world of ours, especially now that it's gotten so much bigger, so much darker."

Franklin's answering smile was the happiest she'd seen from him in a long, long while. "You don't have to tell me twice. I'm gonna get right on that, real soon. Not a second to waste in fact, so I should probably go and start doing that."

Franklin was bouncing on his heels, Matt was laughing quietly, trying to press his lips together to keep it in, but Bess saw it all. She was so damn delighted she had to swallow down some giggles of her own.

"So long then, boys. You two keep your noses clean. And Matthew Murdock, you either get yourself a dog or some such, or I'm going to start driving by your place every day to check on you."

Matt lifted his hands in a gesture of surrender, cane grasped loosely in one of them. "Fine, Bess, you win. I'll see about getting a dog. Maybe some live-in help is just what I need."

Franklin was making faces now, as though he couldn't quite believe what Matt was saying. They clearly needed to have that conversation.

"All right, get out of here, I need to get into my pyjamas and have one cigar before bed." She shooed them out of the apartment after a final round of goodbyes, and then she stood there, leaning against the door, hearing the fading sounds of their footsteps, the low murmur of their voices.

Bess lifted her eyes to the sky, saying a quick thank you to the Man Upstairs for these wonderful children she'd been blessed with, both the ones she'd born and the ones she'd picked up along the way.

Then she squared her shoulders and went to the notebooks where she kept track of all the debts she owed, and the debts owed to her.

She had a heaping pile of winnings to collect from half of Hell's Kitchen, and a new betting pool to start. She was willing to put money on a proposal happening inside of a year, and there were also odds to be given on who was doing the proposing.

Bess smiled victoriously as she dialled the first number — it looked like she would be buying herself the good cigars for a long while.