Actions

Work Header

Learn to Live With the Unimaginable

Work Text:

Frank's shot rings out, a sound probably lost to those on the rooftop across from him caught as they are in their battle. Well, except to Red who finds a moment to throw what Frank's sure is a fantastic glare behind his mask over his shoulder.

'Hey, you asked me to be here. Don't complain about my methods,' he says and through his scope it's easy to see Red's small smirk. God, Red's hearing is insane. One day he's going to figure out exactly how insane it is and maybe then he'll be able to avoid the annoying do-gooder. 'Duck.'

Red hits the deck as Frank shoots the man about to brain him. Even makes it non-fatal, because it'll please the fussy asshole. Red smiles up at him and goes back to work, ducking a punch then stepping aside as their additional backup - a 'friend' of Red's and Frank's still not sure if the tone they use to say friend actually means lovers or enemies and neither is telling - Elektra moves in with her two blades.

Those knives are probably the only reason Red's not being too fussy about the killing tonight. He can't exactly be all moral about Frank's killing when the woman with him is killing too. A part of Frank thinks, as he shoots a third pervert, that if Red could do this alone he would. But there's more of this little ring of perverts than one man could handle and they've still no idea where they're getting the kids from.

Also there's the kids. Right now, Frank's in a position to shoot anyone trying to take them but alone Red would risk losing them. And it seems that even goody two shoes Red is willing to compromise his morals to save children.

He shoots a fourth man - one shot, one kill; sorry Red - and admits to himself that that might be a bit unfair. Red's morals might be tighter than Frank's but they're still not airtight.

'Elektra!' Red screams loud enough for him to hear, and Frank jerks, suddenly thankful his training drummed into him the importance of not keeping a finger on the trigger unless firing. He watches Red dart for Elektra, getting between her and one of the men.

Frank frowns. What is Re- SHIT! The man has a gun and it's pointed at them; how the hell did Frank miss that? Lining up the shot takes seconds and he's firing instantly. Come on, come on, come on...

It's a good shot. A perfect shot. It's between the man's eyes, scattering what few of his brains he had across the roof. One shot, one kill.

But the man fires first.

Red screams, this time a nonsense noise of pain and fear, as an actual ray hits him. Elektra's cries are only a second behind; Red's body failing to protect her from the blast. Frank gets his scope on them just as Red stumbles, falling to his knees.

His knees being a lot closer to the ground now. Frank blinks in disbelief at the two kids on the roof, both wearing too big body armour and masks. Fuck, that's where they get the kids. It explains why no one's reported kids missing.

Kids. Shit, damn, God above. There's two kids on that roof now and still a half dozen men, all of whom explicitly want children. Frank's moving before the thought forms, gun over one shoulder and halfway across the roof separating them. He has to get there, has to protect them. Can't let them die-

Blood on his hands, his face, everywhere. No no, not her, not him, not them. He can't fail again, no no no.

One of the men tries to grab Red who is still on his knees, and drag him up with a under the arm grab. Frank picks up speed, sprinting for the final jump. So close, so close. He can do this, he can do this this time. Be there-

Red, in a movement nearly too fast for Frank to register and almost as graceful as his adult moves, flips the man over his shoulder. With a childish battle cry, so heartbreaking familiar even in this fucked up context, he starts to punch the man. Proper punches, Frank notes, nothing like the flailing limbs he would have expected.

Elektra, stumbling over her own clothes with a mask that's slipping down, falls into a perfect defensive stance as Frank leaps onto the roof. Her eyes dart over them all.

'Who are you?'

'Kid,' one of the men says, his eyes still on Red and his ruthless punching. 'It's okay, we're the good guys. Look, we're not the ones with the guns.'

Red pauses his attack and tilts his head in that distinctive way. 'Liar,' he whispers and Elektra tenses up. 'You've got a gun in your pocket right now.' He stands up and falls... falls into the exact same stance as Elektra. 'Who sent you? Stick?'

'Stick?' one man says confused, even as Elektra jerks, her wide eyes darting to Red. 'Who the fuck is Stick?' he continues, even as his fellows shush him.

'Shut up,' Elektra snaps and everyone freezes at the threat in her voice. 'You are being trained by Stick?' she asks Red.

Red shakes his head. 'He left.'

Elektra looks away for a second then back at Red. 'Can you do what he does? With lies?'

For a second Red pauses, then nods. Frank finds himself raising an eyebrow. So far everyone's frozen, waiting to see how this works out. But once they decide whose side they're on... He shifts, making sure his gun is in easy reach.

Red's attention snaps to him. 'Do you want to hurt us?' he snaps and something cold grips Frank.

'Never,' he says through the thing gripping his throat. 'You're a pain in my ass R-kid but I don't want to hurt you.' Though he can barely breathe through the panic at the thought of what happens if Red doesn't believe him, his heart is steady.

'Truth,' Red declares. 'And them?'

Relief wars with the anger in his chest as the men they're facing start to shift. 'They do want to hurt you.'

'Kid, he's lying!'

Frank puts his hand on his gun as Red shakes his head. 'No he's not. You are.'

Elektra explodes into movement then, pushing past Frank in a fluid motion that she throws into an expert charge. He draws his gun, shooting the two men either side of her. Red jerks at the gunshots, his cowl sliding forwards and mouth wide. Shit, is this the first time he's heard a gunshot?

There's still two men though; Frank doesn't have time to think about this. He has to prot-

Elektra slits the throat of the man she's fighting in a practiced motion, moving onto the next man as if she's not just killed a man. Frank pauses, just for a moment, to deal with the ice in his veins and that's all Red needs. He's across the roof with the same fluid grace as Elektra, engaging the final man who’s been standing there staring at both kids with wide eyes. He ducks and weaves the punches the man throws, like a boxer but with far fancier footwork.

The jump kick is not boxing and it dawns on Frank that Red's not stumbling - not even over his too big clothes. He's used to fighting at this age and what's more, he seems to be used to fighting opponents bigger than him in ill fitting clothes.

So is Elektra. The girl who's about to slit another throat. 'No!' Frank calls out, and she pauses. 'Step away.'

Blinking, she does so. Frank raises his gun and shoots. Point blank, it's not a pretty thing that's left as the man falls to the ground so he steps between her and the body.

'I had him,' she growls.

Frank nods. 'I know you did. Doesn't mean you should have his blood on your hands. That's my responsibility, not yours.' Tugging her behind him, he moves across the roof to Red, releasing Elektra to pull Red off the man he's beating to a pulp. He struggles for a bit but even as a grown man, Frank's able to throw the kid around when he needs to. As a literal kid, Red has no chance. Frank has him off the man when his cowl slips off, revealing tear soaked cheeks that Frank instantly zeros in on. Oh shit, what happened?

He glares down at the man he just pulled the kid off, flames burning in his chest. Pulling Red into a one armed hug, Frank raises the gun in his other hand and fires.

Red jerks again, pounding on Frank's chest with flailing punches. 'No, don't,' he begs and something strikes Frank's heart. Red's tiny and he's still trying to save lives. 'Dad, no...'

Shit. Aware he's in way over his head, Frank pats the kid a few more time then steps away. 'We have to go. You're in danger here.'

'I will follow you,' Elektra says, her eyes fierce.

'I will too,' Red echoes, still physically shaking but with a steady voice.

Both stand in the same position, something it takes Frank a moment to realise is a perfect stance for fighting. Like a soldier would do.

Oh fuck.

********

The first problem is that of the logistics of getting them to safety. Fleeing across the roofs of the city quickly shows that for all their bravo, they're only children and not going to be capable of making all the jumps they need to, especially in ill-fitting clothes. Red's fumbling of a jump that leads to him nearly falling off the roof is the last straw; Frank's never going to get back the years the near miss took from him and he's not risking these kids.

They'll have to use the streets then. But both kids are wearing clothes miles too big for them and it'll attract attention Frank isn't willing to risk right now. Stopping on the roof that nearly killed Red, he eyes them both. Elektra's clothes, at least, offer a simple solution. While she's wearing a body armour like Red's, he's able to quickly tie her slightly too long pants and sleeves up so they're not dragging all over the place.

Elektra then makes it look fashionable. Somehow. She's definitely not like his Lisa, tomboy in pink, always covered in mud and never the pretty princess. A pang goes through Frank at the thought and he turns his mind away from it to focus on the real problem.

Red. He's wearing extremely unpractical and huge body armour and clearly years from the growth spurt that'll make it fit. Frank looks up and down it a couple of times before sighing. 'Take it off kid.'

'What?'

'Your clothes kid. You look like you're wearing your Dad's body armour and that's a bad image to begin with without it being Daredevil's damned armour. The city knows him. It has to go.' He steps forward and puts his hands on Red's cowl, put back on him as they fled the roof. 'You mind?'

Red shakes his head and Frank lifts it gently. It comes off easily, revealing the sightless brown eyes Frank got a glimpse of on that roof. They're still a blow; while he's known - or at least had an inkling of - Red's secret since his hospital bed it's one thing to know an adult is a blind fighter, another to know a child is. 'I'll keep this safe for you.'

'Is it mine?' he asks and something in Frank chokes. They have no memories, this is confirmation they must not have their memories. And they still trust him?

'Yeah,' he replies, keeping his emotions out of his voice. It's still a bit gruff. 'Get that armour off and put this on.' He shrugs off his coat. It's miles too big too but wearing it will make Red look like a kid who got cold walking with his Dad at night and has been given his father's coat to stay warm.

Something in that thought drives a knife into Frank's heart as he turns to give the kid privacy to change. Elektra is staring at him - and Red, by default - so Frank raises an eyebrow at her until she turns around.

'Done,' Red says in a soft voice and Frank turns back. Yes, he looks ridiculous in a coat that's at least three years and a couple of growth spurts away from being close to fitting. But it's also the adorable kind of ridiculous, in the way Frankie never... never got-

'Good,' Frank says blinking back something in his eyes. 'Come on kids, we've got a while to walk.'

They follow him easily down the fire escape, Red's armour hidden with Frank’s vest in the bag he recovered on their flight. But when they reach the ground Red stops, shrinking against the alley wall. 'Kid?'

'I don't have my cane,' he whispers. 'Should I have my cane? I'm supposed to fit in, be a secret warrior. For the war, later.'

It's like the ground has dropped out from under him, hearing the kid say that. 'No kid, you're not supposed to have it right now.' Red looks even more distressed, if that's possible so Frank offers an arm. 'Here kid. If you hold onto me, will it help?' For a moment Red seems unsure but then he nods. Stepping forward, he gently takes Frank's elbow, ducking in close to his body so they're touching.

Frank doesn't remember the last time he was this close to anyone not trying to fight him or not scared of him; let alone a child. They start walking, Frank carefully matching his speed and steps to Red. At the end of the alley they meet Elektra; her eyes moving from the streets she was watching to them. With a quirk of her lips she falls into step on Frank's other side. He shifts his bag further up his shoulder so she can take his arm if she wants.

She doesn't, but she does move closer.

********

Relief floods Frank as they slip into his latest safe house through the unlocked window. Not only are they off the streets and somewhere safe, he's miles away from the early morning crowds full of individuals that insisted on giving him and Matt looks of absolute delighted awe. Like you give babies or men with babies, the kind of looks he used to get when with Li-

Shaking his head to clear the memory - her blood, her bones, her brains, her no longer - he moves into the small apartment. It's not much, barely two rooms and a bathroom but it'll do. He sizes up the two kids and his bed. They should fit together, if they don't mind sharing or Red can take the armchair that came with the place. Or the floor, kids sleep anywhere, though that’s a last resort. And while they're sleeping... no. Frank can't duck out and leave them alone. It's too big of a risk.

But they need clothes and Frank's going to have go outside to get them.

'Okay,' he says with a steady voice. 'You need to sleep-'

'Why?' Red asks, sticking his chin out. 'It's dawn now. I'm not tired.'

Damn, there goes his hopes of Red as a less stubborn child than adult. 'You've been awake all night and you're swallowing yawns Kid.'

'My mind controls my body,' Red choruses. Frank feels a fire racing through him and briefly considers punching a wall. But no, not in front of them.

Elektra, silent until now chips in. 'Why do you want us to sleep?'

Frank sighs. Time to lay things out for them. 'I need to get things. Clothes and food for you - I'm not exactly set up for house guests right now. To do that, I need to know you're both safe.' He dumps his bag on the table and sighs again.

'What if we came with you?'

He turns a glare on her. 'Dressed like that?' Both kids stare back - well Red stares somewhere around his lips instead of his eyes but it's in his direction so it counts - and he clenches his teeth to help swallow the frustrated growl in his chest. Damn it.

'We're coming,' Red says with every drop of force behind his voice. It's like listening to a lion cub roar but Frank manages to keep the smile off his face and out of his voice. 'You can't leave me - us - behind.'

The surety in Red's declaration is what convinces Frank. He's seen Red track people - been tracked by Red a couple of times - and it's damned freaky. He doesn't need eyes on his target and if there's a way to throw his senses off, Frank's yet to find it. He can manage to throw one off but Red uses everything but sight and well, Frank's mostly experienced in losing people's sight lines not getting out of a ridiculous earshot.

'Fine.'

********

Finding a store that sells clothes and is open this time of morning is easier than Frank thought it would be.

Getting the kids to let him go in alone is not.

Red argues with a childish form of the eloquence that will make him a lawyer one day, talking of the need to stay together for the safety in numbers against their enemies. Elektra just glares, her intention to stay by his side in every part of her body.

Finally Frank snaps. 'The quicker I do this, the quicker I get back and we're together. Re-' no, shit what's the kid's actual name, '-Matt,' Red starts, his jaw dropping, 'you can track me in there, right?'

He nods. 'I think so.'

'Get on the roof and keep an ear out. Elektra, you keep an eye out. I'm not back in fifteen minutes and then you come in.' It breaks his heart to say this to children but right now it's what they want to hear and what he has to say to keep them safe.

They nod and race into the shadows, Red a step behind Elektra. Frank sighs again, takes a moment to quell the fluttering storm inside his chest and goes in.

Guessing at sizes, Frank grabs the cheapest and least obnoxious clothes that'll fit both kids. Not a lot of things, but enough they'll have something. Pyjamas are a last minute addition but he decides it's worth it. 'Get off the roof and meet me outside,' he whispers as he finishes at the checkout.

He's not surprised when both kids fade out of the shadows and fall into place at his side as soon as he walks out. Red's hearing is scary good but Frank has the feeling they were closer than the roof. No one says anything as they walk home, Red's arm on Frank's again while Elektra hovers on his other side. Frank ducks into a small store for whatever food he can carry and they're home safe in half the time he thought it would take.

A part of him is relieved. The rest is waiting for the other shoe to drop.

'Put these on,' he says, throwing the pyjamas at them both. Elektra dodges out of the way of hers while Red catches his without turning his head. Dear God above, what happened to these kids?

'Why?' Elektra asks as she picks up hers.

Frank shrugs. 'Thought they'd be more comfortable. We're all getting sleep now.'

'We are?' Red asks, halfway through running his hands all over the pyjamas. 'Even you?'

Red knows when you lie. 'If I can manage it, yes. You two can share the bed... or fight over it. Armchair's yours too. Bathroom is through that door... ah, R-Matt you need a tour?'

The look on Red's face is like a knife to Frank's chest. 'I- I, ah no? Not right now.'

'Let me know if that changes. Now bed, both of you.' Something in his tone - a hint of steel maybe? - must convince them because they're putting off what remains of their adult clothes. In Red's case that's Frank's coat and an old shirt he pulled on earlier. Frank turns around and a moment later hears Elektra do the same.

When he turns back they're both sitting on the floor with a blanket from his bed. An urge to bash his head against the wall surges through him but he restrains it. 'Bed or chair,' he says softly.

'I can take the floor,' Elektra says, her head held high.

'Same,' Red adds, his tone a little less taunting but no less stubborn.

Is this why Red prays? For the strength to be as damned stubborn as he is? 'Well I ain't taking it while you're on the floor. Get. In. The. Bed.'

Neither kid moves. Annoyed, Frank does the one thing he knows he can do.

Wait them out.

Settling into the armchair, he sits and waits. Red starts to drop off first, his head sliding towards the floor as the long day and transformation catches up with his body. Elektra holds out a bit longer but even she can't resist when her body gives out.

Gently Frank lifts first Red, then Elektra, into the bed. He tucks them in instinctively, brushing Elektra's hair from her face like he us- No, don't remember. Keep your mind on the now.

You can't lose your head Frank, until they're safe. Make sure you don't fail and then you can lose it.

Settling back into his armchair, gun held for guard duty, Frank feels confident he's going to succeed this time.

********

'Uh, no. No!'

Frank jerks out of the light doze he's been in, instantly scanning the room for danger. His gun is raised, the - a quick glance at the clock - midday sun glinting off it. On the bed, Elektra rockets into a crouching position. Or at least she tries to but gets caught in the blankets and Red, ending up in a tangled mess.

Somehow this doesn't wake Red, still flailing around on the bed and moaning. Dropping the gun, Frank crosses the room in an instant. Elektra's eyes are wide and her breathing starting to pick up. Her gaze darts from Red to Frank and back again and he can see the panicked light in her eyes.

He makes a snap decision. 'Guard the door,' he hisses, hoping he's doing the right thing. She nods and pulls a knife - where the fuck had she hidden that? - before darting in front of the door. There she freezes, in a position Frank's sure will start to hurt in ten minutes or so. But it gives him time.

'Come on kid,' he whispers, turning back to Red. 'Wake up.' He gently nudges at Red's shoulder, like he would a soldier in the field having a nightmare. He wants nothing more than to draw the kid into a hug like he... like he used to do but...

It doesn't work; Red keeps thrashing and calling for his Dad. Frank bites his lips. Time to trust his instincts? He leans forward and gathers the kid up-

Red wakes in an explosion of flailing limbs, snapping Frank's head back with the force of his punch. Unbalanced, Frank falls backwards and lands on his arse while Red continues to flail. He's getting himself more and more tangled in the sheets, which is causing more flailing and more tangles.

'Shit,' Frank whispers before throwing himself back at the bed. This time he's careful of the limbs and holds Red down. 'Kid, it's me. Matty,' he says, the nickname flowing from his lips without conscious thought, 'you're safe. Shh, you're okay kid. Deep breaths, you're okay.'

Finally his voice gets through. 'Dad?' Red asks, and he sounds so hopeful. A lump forms in Frank's throat.

'No kid. I'm not your Dad-'

'Who are you?' Red roars in his little lion cub voice. He's stopped flailing so Frank releases him, backing off the bed. Looking over his shoulder, he's not surprised to meet Elektra's eyes.

'I'm Frank-'

'Who?'

Right. Frank racks his brain and realises he's never introduced himself. 'The man on the roof,' he says. 'With the gun who doesn't want to hurt you.'

Red considers him for a long moment. 'I... I remember,' he whispers. 'You didn't lie.' Tilting his head, he turns to Elektra. 'And you're with Stick?' he says to her.

She nods and Frank vaguely wonders how much body language Red can pick up. He's not had much trouble so far. 'He trained me,' she says. 'And then he left to go train you.' There's a sneer in her voice. Shit is Frank going to have to step in to prevent a kid soldier fight? Fuck.

'He left me,' Red admits. Is Frank even needed for this. 'But I'm going to do better this time. Be better.' He says this to Frank and Frank's heart clenches. Fuck no.

'I'm sure you will be kid,' he lies. Red frowns. Fuck that's right, kid can hear lies. 'I have no doubt,' he tries again, 'that you will be a good soldier,' and he's not lying, Red is a damned good soldier as an adult or he would be if he wasn't so stupidly moral, 'but I don't need you to be one right now. That's my job.'

'What is our mission then?' Elektra asks.

Frank rises and meets her eyes. 'Breakfast.'

Both kids blink. 'What?' they say as one.

********

It turns out marshalling two pre-teen - or so Frank assumes, he's not quite sure - soldiers to make breakfast is both easier and harder than he thought. Easier because Red's able to monitor food to stop burning from anywhere in the room while Elektra can slice anything into any chunk you want. They're near professionals.

Harder because Red seems skittish about the whole thing and refuses to say why while Elektra keeps trying to skip ahead and just get to eating, like she's never cooked with someone for anything but the sake of having food.

They're cooking breakfast, despite the afternoon sun creeping in Frank's window, because it's the easiest meal that Frank can manage anything halfway decent for. Elektra's on batter making duty while Frank fries and Red... well, Red, he has the most important job of all.

'If you want the bacon crispy but not burnt pull it out now. And the pancakes need flipping, ' Red calls, highlighting exactly how good he is at this. Frank flips the pancakes and takes the bacon out of the pan - it's exactly as Red called it, crispy but not burnt. Exactly how good are the kid's other senses?

'Do we need more?' Elektra asks, eyeing the large pile of pancakes they already have.

'Nah, should be fine.' Frank turns the stove off and points at a cupboard. 'Grab plates?'

She gives him a confused look but grabs plates. It takes a few minutes but soon everyone has a plate of food and somewhere in the room to perch. Both kids eat silently so Frank follows suit, waiting them out. This discussion's been brewing for a while; maybe he'll finally figure out why they're following him.

He doesn't have long to wait. Elektra throws down her plate halfway through and rises. 'I do not understand,' she roars. 'What do you want?'

'To eat breakfast.'

'And then?'

Frank shrugs. 'Figure that out then.' Then he wants to track down the monsters that did this to them but first he has to find somewhere safe for these kids.

She glares at him. 'What do you want with me? With... with us?' She looks at Red, who tilts his head at her. 'Why do you have us?'

'Found you,' he says, starting with the easiest question first. 'You were there, on that roof.'

'And Stick?' It keeps coming back to this 'Stick', the man, no monster, who must have trained both kids before either hit puberty. Frank wants him dead, with a fiery determination that burns under his skin.

'I've never met the bastard and I don't care to.'

Elektra's eyes flash, something angry warring with... panic? 'What do you mean?'

Frank slowly gets to his feet. Shit, tread carefully. 'I don't know Stick and I don't want to. He doesn't seem like my kind of man.'

Red shifts, still sitting in the armchair. 'You're not working with him at all?' That's why they're following him? Fuck.

'No. I just found you on that roof and I want to keep you safe until I know what to do with you.' Nothing in that is a lie. Nothing in that is a lie. Come on, don't read that as a lie. Believe him, please.

Slowly, Red nods. 'Okay.' He frowns. 'If... if Stick didn't send you, why do you care?'

Oh Red . What did this monster do to you? A flash of memory; Red crossing himself while talking murder flashes through Frank's mind. How religious was he as a kid? Would he believe Frank if he said because God said to? But... is there a better way to say this? A more truthful way? 'Because I do. Because you're kids and no one deserves to be alone, especially not kids. And...'

He has to tell them. They're soldiers and normally adults, he can't not tell them. Besides, Red followed him first because he did not lie. And Frank's going to keep that up, he has to. 'And a day ago you were least double your age and I owe you at least an attempt to fix that.'

Both kids jerk as if struck. 'What?'

'I know, doesn't seem like you remember. But you were both older, working with me to... to help people. Kids. And now you're the kids, and I'm going to help fix that however I can.'

Elektra looks to Red, her eyes wide. 'Is he lying?'

'No. No he's not.' Red rises too, his mouth wide. Then he steels his jaw and slams it shut. 'We're going to help.'

Oh fuck no. Frank sighs, realising this isn't a fight for now. These kids can out stubborn him... but can they out sneak him? 'We'll see. For now, dishes.'

Grumbling, both kids grab their plates and Frank sighs. God, he knows he's a monster but he has the feeling by the time this is done he'll have been punished for some of his crimes.

********

It turns out that keeping two barely pre-teen kids - he’s still not sure of ages as neither has said anything but Frank's always been good at guessing ages and there's no way they're a day over twelve - entertained is a thousand times harder than keeping Lisa and Frankie amused ever was. Frank has nothing a kid might like, not even a T.V. and while he's got a computer, it's quickly clear Red can't use it and Elektra doesn't want to.

She's more interested in his guns. 'I've never been allowed to handle one of these,' she says as she moves carefully towards Frank's stockpile. 'They're crutches, distractions from the fight.'

'Still not allowed,' Frank growls and she freezes. Turning her head, a movement so like Red's usual ones Frank's sure she's picked it up from or copied him, she glares at him. 'Gotta be eighteen to touch one. House rules.'

'I am-'

'You're twelve; you said so already,' Red calls out in a bored tone. He's currently lying on Frank's bed, 'staring' at the ceiling with his his head cocked towards them both. Frank just finds the fact Red knows Elektra’s age interesting. When did she say that?

Elektra turns on him. 'I am not! Did not!' She must have muttered it then, for Red to have heard it but not Frank.

'Liar.'

'Why you-'

Sensing this is going to go badly, Frank rises. 'Stop,' he said tonelessly and both kids shut up instantly. Elektra snaps to attention and Red sits up, siding around so his feet are on the floor.

Fuck.

Neither kid says anything; they just stare (as much as they are able to) at Frank. Waiting. Waiting for orders, damn it. 'Your knife,' Frank finally grits out through the rising tightness in his chest.

Elektra blinks. 'My... knife?'

'Let me see it.' Fuck, he's using his Lieutenant voice, the one he used on the kids they sometimes got - eighteen, baby faced, too damned young, and only sometimes broken into soldiers in time. But Elektra responses to it, another blade in his chest, as she hands over the knife she pulled earlier. It's a fine blade, but Frank can see the specks of blood on it. 'And the other one?'

Raising an eyebrow, Elektra hands over a second knife. Frank does not let himself track where she pulls it from, nor does he think about the fact that the look on her face might be faint admiration. No need to tell her the only reason he knows she has a second knife is because her adult self does… did.

It too is bloody and he sighs, laying them out on the table. 'If you're going to carry these, they'd better be clean.' She looks from the knives to his face and back again. 'Come on kid, get over here.' With a slight jump, she darts over to the table, taking the seat Frank indicates. He hears the bed springs creak and looks up to see Red making his way over. 'Keep 'em clean and sharp and you'll not have to worry about them ever.' He rummages through his things until he finds the supplies she'll need. 'Get to it.'

Everything in him is screaming at leaving a kid to clean and sharpen a knife but it's going to keep her busy and there's no way he's going to get them from her.

One kid down, one to go.

'Do you want me to do that too?' Red asks, cocking his head at Frank.

'You ever handled a knife before?'

'No Sir.'

'Then why the hell would I just give you one?' Red rears back as if struck and Franks sighs, burying his head in his hands. 'I mean kid, you gotta learn the basics before you start with the complicated shit.'

Red bites at his lip. 'Oh. Can... can you teach me?'

Frank nods. 'Yeah kid. First things first. Can you find my knives?'

*********

It takes Red a half hour to track down each of the dozen or so knives Frank has in his apartment, handing each found knife to Elektra for cleaning and sharpening. He says it takes that long because a lot of the scent of metal is being hidden by blood and he can't tell what's blood on the knives and just blood in the apartment.

Frank resolves to clean up a lot better in future.

‘Now what?’ Red asks, having found the last of the knives.

'We get the blood off them all.'

Red sniffs the pile of clean knives and frowns. 'They still smell like blood.'

Well shit. 'Better grab a rag then kid.'

He should probably feel guilty, he realises a half hour later as Red rejects yet another of Elektra's knives as 'still having blood, how can you not smell it?', for letting the kids do this. But, for the moment, they're just cleaning and well, it's a distraction. He glances out the window where the last rays of sun are slowly fading from view. It's a distraction for them all. Somehow in the next hour or so he's going to have to find a reason to leave them behind while he goes back.

These two are not the only kids in danger right now.

'What was I like?' Red asks, pulling Frank from his thoughts.

'What?'

'You... you said I was older. Adult?' He tilts his head. 'You weren't lying. So... what was I like?'

Frank considers for a long moment. 'Pain in my ass.'

Red smirks. 'And a badass?'

'Language kid. And sometimes.'

'You just swore!' Red says indigent.

'Do as I say, not as I do kid. You'll go further.' That gets an annoyed huff from Red. 'How much cleaner?'

Red sniffs at the knife Frank's holding out to him. 'Smells clean. Why... why does it have to smell clean?'

'Doesn't.'

Both kids blink at him. 'Then... then why do you make us clean them?' Elektra grits out.

Frank smirks. 'Well, if you were cleaning already...'

Elektra grabs one of her knives, and Frank can't help himself. 'No. Don't hold it like that.' She stops, tilting her head. 'Kid, you only hold it like that if you're going to throw it.'

'I am.'

'...And you only throw knives at people you want dead. Want me dead kid?' She looks at him, her eyes slightly wider than before so Frank presses. 'You want me dead kid?'

Slowly, Elektra shakes her head. 'No. No I do not.' She looks him up and down, her eyes still wide. 'You... you are not my enemy.'

Frank smiles. 'Glad to hear it.'

They settle into a friendly silence.

*********

The friendly silence breaks an hour or so later, when Frank starts to pack to leave.

Without them.

'You need us,' Elektra says. 'We're soldiers, we're fighters and we're your backup.'

'No,' Frank snaps. 'I'm your backup and right now, you're in no position to argue. Stay here. Hold the fort. I'm just going to recon the place, I'll be back before you miss me.'

Elektra glares but shuts up. Red, who's yet to speak, just fixes his blank stare on Frank. 'You'll be back soon?'

Remembering the kid knows when he lies, Frank nods and gives a half answer. 'As soon as I can.'

They don't say anything else as he leaves, locking the door behind him.

Oh who is he kidding? They're going to follow him. Every man and his dog knows they're going to follow him. A blind man could see they're going to follow him. It's practically written in stone; a fixed point in the universe. They're not going to listen to him and they're going to follow him.

Sighing, he takes a position on a nearby roof and waits.

********

Ten minutes.

Ten goddamned minutes.

Goddamned kids.

They're good; he's feeling just generous enough to give them that. Red leads the way, head cocked in Frank's sights as they make their way across his building's roof. Elektra's the one to judge the jump to the next building though, Matt following and matching her movements exactly. Clever.

Both of them are wearing dark clothes which is confusing because he didn't buy them black clothes. But then, as they make a second jump, Frank catches sight of how Red's pants are tied at the bottom. They've stolen Frank's clothes. Smart.

For a moment he debates putting a bullet into the roof they've just jumped onto, a warning even they can't ignore. But no, that's wrong damnit Frank, you're not supposed to scare kids like that. Even if you're half sure the only language these kids have been taught to obey is that of violence. Fucking Stick. One day he's going to stick him. Gut him. Something nice and slow. With a sigh, he packs up his scope and gun, already planning an intercept path.

Red cocks his head when Frank gets a roof or two away and he's close enough to see the way Red startles. Elektra turns and copies the motion. For a second both kids are bouncing on the spot.

'Don't even think about it,' Frank calls, barely bothering to project. 'I will find you sooner or later and if you run there's no damned way you'll get to come.'

They don't move. Frank makes the jump onto the roof they're on, stumbling his landing a bit and both of them fall into the same defensive position.

'Does that mean we might get to come?' Red asks, before Frank can speak, the words said in such a rush that Frank's sure he's been holding that in until he was sure Frank is in earshot.

'What?'

'You said if we run we couldn't come which means if we didn't run we could come.' Red blinks up at him - or up at two inches to his right at least - with wide eyes and pouting lip.

Holy shit. The kid's a lawyer at twelve. 'How about we start with what you're doing out here and work our way from there?' Both kids shift on the spot, heads dropping. 'Thought I told you to stay inside.' Neither say anything. 'Did I tell you to stay inside?' Frank repeats in a slightly harsher tone.

'Yes sir!' Both kids snap out, though Elektra glares the entire time.

Frank deliberately relaxes his body language. rolling his shoulders and calming his heart and breathing. 'Good. So my memory isn't going.' Red gapes at him while Elektra's eyes narrow slightly. They're confused. Good. 'So. Why are you here?' he asks softly.

'What?' Red asks.

'Why. Are. You. Here?' he repeats, keeping his voice as gentle as possible.

Red bites at his lip. 'You need our help?'

'Said I didn't.'

'You need our help,' Elektra repeats, with all the conviction Red's lacking. 'And we're going to come anyway.'

Frank shakes his head. 'I can stop you. Don't want to have to but I can do it.' Red tenses, obviously hearing - is that how the kid does it? Or smell it? Or is it just something he knows? - the truth in his words. Elektra gives him a long and considering look before glancing at Red. That gets her to tense. Yes, she believes him too. 'Give me one good reason why I shouldn't.'

Red opens and shuts his mouth a few times before shaking his head. Good.

Elektra on the other hand just stares. 'We have trained for this,' she finally says. 'It is what we are supposed to do. Our fight, our war. If you do not take us with you, someone else will.'

Well damn. That's the best worded 'If you don't do it, we'll go find someone bad to do it for us' he's ever heard. God damn.

A part of him whispers that they've already found someone worse than him to do this kind of thing and he left them behind. Walked away, to leave these kids as two aimless weapons. How the fuck Murdock walked out of it sane enough to become a lawyer, Frank's still not sure. And it's not like he knows enough to judge if Elektra is sane.

'You will listen to me.' The kid's shoulders rise as one, their faces brightening. 'That is not a question. You will listen to me or I will drag you both back and chain you to the bed.' Some of the light fades from their faces. Good. 'Is that understood?'

'Yes sir!' they say together.

Frank sighs. 'First thing - call me sir again and you're going home regardless.'

'Ah, yes s-' Red flounders for a moment, before biting at his lip. 'What do we call you?'

'Frank'll do. It's all you call me usually.' Red gives him a wide eyed blank stare before nodding. 'Now, follow me.'

**********

Having the kids means they can't travel along the roofs as Frank's still not risking a fall. So Red puts his hand on Frank's arm and Elektra stalks a step ahead of them, creating the picture of a family out for an evening walk.

It's a good thing they don’t use the roofs. A block away from the building in question Red tenses and pauses. Only Frank's hold on him keeps him walking, keeps him moving and stops him looking suspicious.

'What is it?' Frank whispers, barely audible to his own ears.

Red buries his head in Frank's shoulder, hiding his lips. Good kid. 'Men,' he whispers. 'On the roof.'

'Which buildings?' Frank shifts Red's grip on him so he's holding Frank's hand. 'Centre of my palm is our target. Tap out the buildings around it with guards.'

Bringing up his other hand, Red gives the convincing appearance of playing with Frank's hand as he marks out a circle around the centre of Frank's palm. Okay, their target is surrounded. They're waiting for them.

'Have they noticed us? Squeeze once for yes, twice for no.' Red tilts his head then squeezes once. Shit.

'El darling, come back here,' Frank calls out to Elektra, still a step ahead. 'You're getting too far ahead; you know your brother isn't as fast as you.' Elektra looks over her shoulder with a glare, then pauses.

With the most dramatic sigh Frank's ever heard, she dances back to his side and takes his other hand. Good, she's noticed. 'I'm not a child Dad,' she growls and Frank only barely manages to swallow the bile and hide the flinch that word causes. 'I don't need to hold your hand.'

'I know darling, but doesn't mean I don't need to hold yours.' Frank squeezes her hand as they stop at the edge of a road. 'Curb Matty.' Red startles then nods. 'I just don't want you wandering off. There's all sorts of vicious people around, you might get hurt.'

She squeezes back. 'Thanks for the warning Dad,' she says with so much sarcasm, Frank's both amazed and slightly proud. 'Are we going home now? I'm boooored.'

'Soon sweetie. Just need to make sure Matty's had his fill of walking.'

'You're making me sound like a dog,' Red says, amusement in his tone.

Frank smirks. 'If the shoe fits kid.' He takes a deep breath and adds, near silently, 'Anyone going to follow us if we keep going?' Red squeezes once. 'Okay. More than five?' Two squeezes. Right. Damn it. Still more than Frank's comfortable taking on alone with kids to protect but... but together they should have no issues. Fuck, he's going to have to let them fight. 'Tap on my hand the way they're coming from.' Red fiddles with the thumb on his right hand. 'Okay kids,' he says louder so Elektra can hear. 'Let's go home.'

Tugging gently on Elektra's arm, he leads them to the left and across the street. She goes easily, not giving any sign she's being dragged. 'Can we get ice cream?' she asks as they head down a street. 'I've not had it e...in a while.'

Jesus Christ, no ice cream? 'We'll pick up a tub on the way.'

Red make a disgusted noise. 'Can we get decent stuff? The cheap stuff tastes like shit.'

'Language kid.' Red sticks his tongue out and Frank elbows him. 'Cheeky little shit.'

'Language!' Elektra says with glee.

'Do as I say not as I do. Matty, how many tubs you think we can fit in our freezer?' Please let him get the code...

'Five. I bet we can fit five,' Red says instantly, smirking up at Frank. 'Especially if two are kinda small, a bit broken and mine.'

Oh the cheeky little shit . But good code. Five men, two injured and not overly large. 'One of the small ones are yours. El can have the other one.'

'Why do you get the three big ones?' Elektra says, outrage in her voice.

'Because I'm the adult and I can handle it. Now come on, shortcut. Matty, to your left.'

They turn down the alley Frank's indicated. The second they're halfway into it, Red releases his grip on Frank. Elektra must take that as her cue because she lets go in the next second, drawing her knives.

Frank draws a gun, a pistol but one with a suppressor so it'll reduce the risk of concerned citizens hearing the noise. 'Matt, how long?'

'A minute.'

'Into the shadows. Two steps back.' Red nods and steps back until his body starts to blend in with the darkness of the wall behind him. 'Elektra, you too.' She grins as she moves back.

Frank undoes his trench coat, so they'll be able to see the skull on his vest. With a smirk, he waits.

They all wait.

********

One batch. Two batch. Penny and dime.

One batch. Two batch. Penny and dime.

One batch. Two bat-

The first man walks into the alley slowly, gun drawn. A step behind are two men, bigger than the first who are also carrying. Only the last two men, smaller as Matt said, aren't carrying weapons but they do have-

They do have handcuffs and blindfolds. Frank's head clears of emotion, the fire he feels being pushed back as he focuses.

The first man pauses, obviously seeing only Frank standing there with his head bowed. They all hesitate, just for a moment, and that's more than Frank needs.

He puts a bullet in the first man's skull before he has time to take another breath.

With a cry, Red charges from the shadows, throwing himself at the closest of the two smaller men. Elektra is a beat behind, charging at the other man with her knives held high.

The two men left for Frank scatter, diving for the side of the alleyway while popping off two shots each at Frank. Only one hits, a kick right to the centre of his vest that's easy to ignore. Amateurs. He tracks the roll of the man on the right and lines up his shot.

One shot, one kill. Easy.

The third man's a little smarter, rolling down the alleyway so he's headed behind Frank. If he'd been a little faster on his feet, a little more skilled, maybe he could have pulled it off.

As it is, Frank has no trouble putting a bullet in his spine as he rolls pass. It causes the man to scream, high pitched noises of agony that have Frank gritting his teeth. He puts a final bullet into the man's head, barely caring about the fact it almost could be called a mercy to spread his brains over the ground.

Turning, he's not surprised to see Red on top of his opponent - literally - bashing him into the ground with rage filled cries. Elektra is... oh the damned kid is playing with her target, darting out of reach and leaving small but deep cuts on various parts of his body.

'Time to end this,' Frank says and both kids give him a moment of attention. Red takes this as the cue to get up; putting a firm foot on his target's throat to choke him into unconsciousness.

Elektra takes this as a cue to slit her target's throat. 'No!' Frank calls out, his voice echoed by Red's, but it's too late. The man gargles and falls to his knees, eyes wide as he collapses.

'You killed yours!' Elektra cries, anger mingling with something like fear in her voice. She turn to face him. 'You ca-'

'I was going to do it,' Frank says, cutting her off. 'It was my responsibility.' He turns to face Red, still holding his target down. 'Step aside kid.'

Red squares his shoulders. 'Are you going to kill him?'

'So what if he is?' Elektra demands before Frank can reply. 'We are at war and they're the enemy. You don't show the enemy mercy.'

'But... it's a sin to kill,' Red says, biting his lip. 'The worst one.'

Oh Red. You never change. 'Step aside kid. I swear, by God above, I ain't going to kill him.'

For a long moment Red just stands there, biting his lip. Then he nods, stepping aside. 'You're not going to kill him.'

'Thanks kid,' Frank says gently. Then he forces every inch of gentleness from his body as he picks the barely conscious man up by the throat, ignoring both the strain in his muscles and the hitching breathing of his victim.

'Please don't,' the spineless piece of shit begs. 'Please-'

'If it were up to me, you'd not be begging. But the kid wants you to live so live you will,' Frank whispers to him. 'But remember, they're under my protection. And I know your face.' The man's eyes widen. 'You know who I am?' A nod, with even wider eyes. 'Then you know why that's a problem for you.' Another nod.

Frank throws him down the alleyway, towards the street. 'Go on then. Go back and tell your buddies that these kids are under the Punisher's protection. They all are. And I'm coming for you!'

The man scrambles to his feet. 'Stop,' Frank says in a monotone and the man freezes before running. 'Don't forget to tell those fucking cowards that if a single hair on any kid's head is harmed, I'm going to make you all beg for death.'

He shots, missing the man deliberately and feels a drop of... something - maybe delight, maybe annoyance - as the scent of urine fills the air. The man scampers.

Red throws his body into Frank, knocking him to the ground. 'You said you weren't going to kill him!'

Frank rolls, pinning Red under him. 'And I didn't. Missed on purpose kid, I was never going to hit him.' Red struggles, seemingly not hearing Frank. 'Come on kid, listen or whatever it is you do. I am not lying.'

Finally Red settles. 'I know. I know.'

Frank backs off, looking up to see Elektra's knife. The way she's holding it, raising his head means the tip is now pointing right between Frank's eyes. 'Going to kill me kid?'

'If you had not released him.'

Standing up, Frank's not surprised when Elektra follows him with the knife. 'I've said it before, I don't want to hurt you. You trust R-Matt, right? He can do his thing, tell you I'm not lying.'

'Your heart,' Red says and Frank blinks down at the kid, still lying on the ground. 'I listen to your heart. That's how I know you're not lying.'

'...the fuck? Your hearing's that good?' Red bites his lip, looks away and nods. 'That's kinda impressive kiddo.' His head snaps back to look at Frank, sightless eyes filled with a light Frank doesn't care to interpret.

Then he tilts his head. 'Sirens.'

Oops. 'Our cue. Come on kids.' Frank pulls Red to his feet and motions for Elektra to follow. She lowers her knife with a short nod, tucking it away. 'Matt, which way?'

Red cocks his head then starts to walk fast, Frank a step behind.

They're two blocks away before Frank hears a siren and it's a distant noise. By the time the police arrive, they'll be too far away to track.

Good work Red.

********

Frank does stop them for ice cream on the way home; three tubs of it hastily brought by Red as he's the only one with no blood on him. When they reach his apartment, Frank's not overly surprised to see that Red brought three tubs of the nicer ice cream brands around. All different flavours.

'I call the cookie dough one,' Red calls as Frank pulls the tubs out of the bag.

Oh hell no. 'We all get a scoop of each and the rest go in the freezer.' Red goes to protest and Frank holds up a hand. When Red freezes he feels a tinge of surprise. So he can see or sense that? Huh. 'Got it?' With a grumpy noise he nods. 'Elektra, you want some?'

She's already settled herself at Frank's table, wiping the blood off her knife. She and Frank have changed, leaving their blood soaked clothing to soak in Frank's bathroom sink. 'I... Yes?'

'Good. Now R-Matt. Use that nose of yours and help me find spoons.' Frank gives his kitchen a good look over. 'And bowls maybe.'

'There's something growing in that bowl,' Red says, pointing at a plate Frank forgot to wash then couldn't find the energy to care about and left sitting where it ended up. 'But I think there's bowls there?'

Together they manage to scrape together three bowl shaped plates and spoons. Red dishes out the ice cream with singular focus, grabbing the plate with the slightly larger scoops before Frank can protest.

But to his surprise, Red doesn't keep it. 'Here,' he says, giving Elektra the bowl. 'Try.' He smiles at her and a moment later, she gives him a brief smile back.

Just for that, Frank lets the kid have the bowl with the second largest scoops.

They need to talk, all three of them, but for now he lets the kids enjoy their ice cream. No need to spoil good ice cream, holy shit Red can you pick it.

********

Elektra's still cleaning her knife.

They finished their ice cream a half hour ago - a second bowl because it's dawned on Frank he's not actually got anything else to eat and better full of sugar than starving - and while Red's ducked into the shower to wash up, Elektra hasn't moved. She's still at the table, cleaning the blood off a clean knife.

'Kid?' Frank asks, taking the seat across from her. 'You okay?'

She looks up at him briefly before returning to the knife. 'Matthew could still smell blood on this earlier. Now I am sure it is worse.'

'That's not what's bugging you.'

Another quick glance up at him. 'You said not to kill my target, moments after killing your own.' There's something like confusion in her tone.

Frank sighs. 'Do as I say not as I do,' he repeats. 'Killing is... killing's my responsibility. I don't need... don't want either of you to have to do it.'

Finally, Elektra puts the knife down. 'But we are at war. Killing our enemy prevents them from waking and attacking from behind.'

Well it's good logic. But something squeezes in Frank's chest and his mouth tastes of bile as he hears her say it. 'And that's why I'll be the one to do it. Kid,' he reaches for her hands, pausing halfway across the table to let her place them in his, 'you don't have to kill. It's my responsibility, my cross to bear.'

She shakes her head. 'I have to. I... I want too.' Biting her lip she takes her hands from his. 'They were right. I am a... a thing. A monster.’ She looks up and meets his eyes, a challenge in her glance. I'm a monster, her eyes say. Are you scared of me?

‘No you ain’t kid.’ She goes to protest and Frank cuts her off. ‘You ain’t kid. Thing is, monsters are the worst of humanity. The kind of awful that just drag everything and everyone around them into hell, because they can. People who’ve done things so goddamned awful that even God Himself couldn’t bear to look on their faces.

‘And monsters like that? They know other monsters. And trust me kid, you ain’t one.’

Elektra looks down at her clean hands. ‘I have blood on my hands.’

‘And you gotta live with that. But kid, that ain’t your fault.’ She gives him a disbelieving look. ‘You are what others made of you. What you do with that, that’s your fault.’

‘They say that the blood does not wash off.’ Frank narrows his eyes at the non-sequitur. ‘On your hands. Once you have stained them, the blood does not wash clean.’ She looks down at her hands, wriggling them a bit. ‘It’s not hard though, to wash the blood off my hands. I don’t even feel anything when I do.’

Frank sighs. ‘Blood washes off your hands. Easily too, once you get it out from under your nails. Thing is, it ain’t your hands that blood stains. It’s your soul.’

‘Do I have one?’

The ground drops out from under Frank, it’s the only explanation for the way his stomach feels right now. ‘What?’

‘Do I have a soul?’ Of course. They called her a thing... an 'it' probably. What's the bet they told her she was soulless too?

Death is too good for this Stick and whatever other sickos got their hands on these kids.

‘You breathing kid?’ She nods. ‘Then you got one.’

‘But they-’

Frank cuts her off. ‘Don’t care what people said to you. I ain’t much of a person but I got eyes. You’ve got a soul kid. Someone might’ve made you stain it, taught you shit that’s bloodied it before you could pick, but it’s there. And it’s yours to do with as you want.’

'But-'

'You have a soul,' Red says, causing both Elektra and Frank to tense. He's standing in the doorway to the bathroom, with dripping wet hair and blank eyes somehow staring into them both. 'Everything does.'

'You cannot know that.'

Red just smiles, a soft smile made softer by the look on his face. 'I can hear it. It buzzes.'

Elektra gives an outraged squawk. 'Does not!'

'How would you know? I can hear everything.'

The arrogant smirk on Red's face has Frank swallowing a laugh - not giggles, a laugh - as Elektra turns on him. 'He's lying!'

'I don't know kiddo. His hearing's pretty damned good.' Frank takes a deep breath and gets the last of his laughter out of his voice. 'I know it's asking a lot but... trust us, at least on this. We know what we're talking about.'

Elektra gives the both considering looks. Red shuffles a bit under the scrutiny but Frank stays perfectly still. He's not lying.

Finally she gives a short nod and there's a collective sigh of relief.

********

It takes a bribe of another bowl of ice cream but Frank manages to get the kids to stay behind a half hour later as he goes for something else edible. Red gives him a suspicious look but Frank knows he's not lying so his heartbeat stays steady.

And it's not a lie. A half-truth is still a truth and it's enough to get past Red apparently. Frank only has a half hour of night left and he has to see how their 'friends' are going before it's too risky.

The rooftop he picks isn't quite empty. That's fine, it's clear of everything but bodies by the time he gets into position. Red's going to smell the blood on him; he's in for such a lecture.

It's going to be worth it. Through his scope, Frank has a clear view of the building that had started this whole mess, complete with its two dozen guards. And that's just around the building itself - Frank's current roof is not the only one that's a little more crowded than usual. Red was right, they have the place surrounded.

And they're not moving out, despite being warned the Punisher is after them. Either they're stupid... or they don't think he can take them.

Which is cocky enough to push them right back into stupid.

But not tonight. Frank has enough information to get by and they're not moving the kids they have. Tomorrow night, he's coming back and they'll wish they'd never heard his name.

For now, he has to go home and face the music.

********

Even though he walks in carrying two bags of various food stuffs - mostly boxes of frozen things because Frank might know how to cook but it's not like he has a lot of things to cook with - Red's glare is impressive and boy does he look pissed.

'You lied ,' he snaps as Frank fights to get the last of the nuggets into the freezer.

'Nope. Got jumped on a roof on the way,' he says easily and he can see the frown as Red gaps. It's not a lie though the dead men might argue about who did the jumping. 'Fought 'em off.'

'Killed them,' Red says softly and Frank can feel the jump in his heart.

He doesn't have to say anything, the look of disappointment on Red's face shows he got it already. But... 'Yeah kid. I did.'

'You shouldn't.'

Frank sighs and takes Red's arm, leading him back to the bed where Elektra is sitting, the bottom part of her face covered by the blanket but her bright eyes staring at them. 'I know. But kid...' Shit he can't convince adult Red, how the hell can he convince a kid version? Should he? '...kid, not everyone is as good a person as you are. I do what I think I have to and one day God'll judge me for my sins.' Red tilts his head and Frank adds, 'You keep doing what you're doing and God'll judge you for yours. Not that you'll have any. Altar boy.' He can't keep the smile from his voice at the last phrase.

Red glares and opens his mouth to complain. Frank strikes, pushing him onto the bed and into Elektra.

Elektra who brings the blanket down enough to grin up at Frank before throwing the blankets over Red.

'Hey!' Red calls. 'I'm blind!'

'You're already blind!' Elektra calls back.

'Good point.' Red throws the blanket back up and over Elektra and the pair wrestle on the bed for a bit. Both occasionally glance in Frank's direction, making him sure they both know this is a distraction and are letting him get away with it.

Frank checks his watch and makes a decision. 'Okay kids, knock it off.' Both kids instantly freeze, pushing off the blanket to sit up militarily straight. Damn it. 'Bedtime. You need a couple of hours sleep for tomorrow.'

'We're going back,' Red says and it takes Frank a moment to realise it's not a question.

'Yeah,' he replies, aware anything else will read as a lie. 'Tomorrow night. But we've got something else to do tomorrow.'

'What?' Elektra asks, slipping under the covers. Apparently tonight they're taking his 'take the bed' offer at face value.

'It's a surprise.'

They protest but Frank's lips are sealed. He's not going to spoil the surprise.

Tomorrow night, one way or another, this is going to be over. Tomorrow night they'll invade the place that did this to them and either find the antidote to it or learn it's permanent. Tomorrow night Frank will have to give up these kids, either to their adult selves or people more capable of raising them without fucking it up.

So tomorrow is Frank's one - and only - chance to let these kids be kids with him, just for the day.

He's going to make the most of it.

********

The kids wake when Frank shuts the door, despite the care he tries to take to close it quietly. Well, Red wakes really, bolting up in a movement that must wake Elektra because she's copying the movement a second later. Course the bed isn't actually that big so they end up tangled up in another.

Standing by the door, Frank swallows a laugh. Dumping his things on the table he moves over to help untangle the kids, who are both blinking at him with sleep filled eyes.

'You went out?' Red accuses as Frank gets the last of the blankets off and the kids are standing.

Frank nods. 'Had a few things to grab for today.' He probably shouldn't have left them alone, even for the fifteen minutes he's been gone, but he needed these things - mostly cash - and the kids can take care of themselves. As much as he hates it, they can take care of themselves.

Besides, he'd locked every door and window on the way out. If nothing else, the sound of someone breaking in would have woken the kids and maybe the locks might have stopped them leaving. Moot point now.

'And you could not wake us?' Elektra asks, drawing him out of his thoughts. 'We would have come with you.'

'Yeah but you were sleeping and it might've ruined the surprise.' Frank reaches into one of his bags and throws a bundle at each kid. 'Put those on; should be better than what we got before.'

Elektra gives the black skirt Frank picked out a look, though there's a tilt in her head as she pats at the lace. 'It's... nice? But blood will show on this.' She holds up the white blouse.

'Ain't going to wear it anywhere near blood,' Frank says, a note of warning in his voice. 'I've a bag here for your knives but they're to stay in it, unless we're about to die. Got it?' When she doesn't nod, Frank repeats, 'Got it?' A sharp nod answers him.

'What colour is this?' Red asks, holding out the t-shirt Frank threw at him. He's already pulled on the jeans; must have used their conversation as cover for it.

'Red,' Frank says with a smirk, and watches as Red runs his hands over the picture printed on the front. 'Got a picture of, ah, Daredevil on it.' Red gives him a confused look. 'Local hero or some shit. People hawk stuff with his face on it, like it'll help attract him.' After a second's consideration Frank adds, 'Picture's in black. Vaguely fancy shadow art.'

Frank sends Elektra into the bathroom to change, getting started on some eggs and bacon for breakfast while Red changes. The amusement of buying Daredevil a Daredevil shirt doesn't fade when he turns around to see Red in the slightly too big shirt - they'd only had men's sizes and Frank’s guessed correctly that the kid isn't quite a men's small yet - standing behind him.

In fact he laughs so hard, Red has to take over the frying before the bacon burns. 'I don't look bad?' Red asks when Frank's got a hold of himself.

'You don't,' Elektra says, in an annoyed tone. 'He's just being weird.'

'Adults are all weird,' Red says with feeling and it nearly sets Frank off again.

'Irony kid,' he finally manages to say. 'Just laughing at the irony of everything.' Gently he pushes Red aside, to help Elektra set the table... or at least find plates, while he finishes cooking.

Red snorts. 'Jesus Ch-'

'Language,' Frank snaps and Red looks taken back. They dish out the meal in silence and eat in an ever growing tension.

Finally Red says, in a soft voice, 'Where are we going?'

'Surprise,' Frank replies, just as gently, an apology in his voice. 'But I got a couple of things, hang on.' He dumps their plates on top of the pile in the sink - should really try and find the energy to deal with those someday - and grabs the rest of the bags he'd brought in. First he passes the bag he promised to Elektra; a silver thing She doesn't say anything but her nod seems grateful and she puts the bag on so he counts it as a win.

Turning to Red, he hands over a pair of sunglasses - as close to the pair he remembers adult Murdock wearing as he could find - and a cane. Frank's pleased to see it's the perfect height for the kid; he'd had to guess.

Red blinks down at it. 'For... for me?'

Frank shrugs. 'Figured you might want to be able to leave my side in public.'

'I don't need it. I don't mind holding onto you,' Red says and there's a note in his voice. Frank's not sure what it is though.

'Just figured you should have the choice,' Franks says softly. 'You should always have choices. But if you wanna hold my arm, it's yours. You... you just don't have to anymore.'

Red ducks his head. 'Thank you.'

With a nod, Frank turns to the door, grabbing a cap as he goes. 'Come on then, let's go.'

'Go where?' Elektra asks as she slips her arm through Frank's, Red doing the same on the other side a moment later.

'Surprise,' Frank whispers, barely keeping the wonder from his voice.

********

'Games?'

The disbelief in Elektra's voice is a blow to Frank's chest but he nods. 'Arcade. Does a decent meal too I'm told, but that's for later.'

'An arcade?' Red says, the same sort of disbelief in his voice. 'But...' He trails off, waving his hand in front of his eyes.

Frank smirks. 'Sure kid, screens aren't going to be your thing but they've got a basketball hoop game over there. Bet you start out shooting me in five games.'

Something like delight slips onto Red's face. 'Deal.'

It only takes him two games, the uncanny aim he has an adult clearly something he's had since childhood. Once he gets a feel for how the baskets move - because of course they're playing the version with moving baskets - he's unbeatable, limited only by the speed he can throw balls. Frank tucks the white cane out of sight when an attendant comes over, just in case.

Elektra gets bored after a dozen games and wanders over a few machines, to where some shooting game is being hogged by a pair of much older boys, neither of whom seem to be any good. Frank prepares to step in but there's no need; one sees Elektra waiting and laughing, lets her take the next turn after he dies.

She smiles and takes the gun with a look of longing that has Frank quickly reviewing where he can hide his guns. Then, with a smirk, she falls into a decent shooting stance.

For the whole round, she never moves from that stance, firing so well Frank can't help but be amazed. The teen playing stays ducked down, watching her work with awe in his eyes. Frank starts to laugh, and turns to face Red, who's smirking as well.

'I don't know if they're terrified of her or if they like her,' Red whispers.

'Probably both,' Frank says, something sour creeping into his amusement as he realises how much adult stuff Red's hearing probably makes him privy to. 'How about we move onto another game?'

Elektra looks up as they start to move, and puts a final shot into the game without looking at it. She then hands the gun back to the teen who gave it to her, ignoring their pleas for her to stay and play.

Red snorts and Frank makes an inquiring noise as Elektra catches up to them. 'What?'

'Heard that,' he says to Elektra and she makes a face at him. 'Wasn't very nice.'

'I don't wanna know,' Frank says and ignores the face Red makes back at Elektra. 'Come on, let's try Skee Ball.'

Both kids are good at this, though Red has to be told which circles have more points. Elektra nails every shot, getting hundreds with hardly any effort. Red's just as good and it quickly becomes a competition to see who can throw the most balls.

Frank ends up refereeing ten matches before he calls it a draw and drags the kids away. Elektra spots some sort of prize game with stack building or something and takes it over, amusing herself with getting the piles almost to the top before losing. Frank's sure it's deliberate because of the way she smirks when the growing crowd groans at her losses.

Red on the other hand, goes back to the basketball game, leaving Frank to sigh and take a position where he can see both kids. This wasn't the first place to take the kids he thought of, but of all the thoughts he had, it was the only one with no memories attached. They'd never come to any place like this, let alone here and while it might have been easier on Red to go to something like a park... the mere thought drives panic through his heart. No-

'Hey,' a male voice says, breaking into his thoughts and Frank looks up to meet the eyes of a man standing in front of him. The man's eyes widen and it dawns on Frank that he's been made.

'Shit,' he whispers under his breath as the man takes a terrified step back. 'Shi-'

'Dad?' Red calls and Frank automatically turns towards him. 'Dad, where are you?'

'Here Matty.' Instantly Red's taping his way to Frank, giving the man who'd made him a tap on the ankle as he passes. 'You alright?'

Confusion is on the man's face as Red grabs Frank's arm and tucks himself into Frank's side. Of course he's confused; it's very well known why Frank's doing all he's doing. There's no one on the Earth that should call the Punisher Dad anymore. It's doubt, and it might be enough to get them out of this.

Red's clearly figured out something is up and Frank's never been more grateful for how intelligent the man... boy is. 'You weren't there when I turned around. Got lost.'

'Sorry kiddo,' Frank says, patting Red's head. 'Just came to check on your sister, figured you were too busy with your fluke shots to miss me.' Thanks for the rescue his gentle brush against Red's cheek says.

He keeps his hand there so he feels Red's smile, as well as sees the edge of it, tucked into his sleeve as it is. 'Not flukes. Skill.'

'Luck,' Frank insists and looks back up at the man, now looking at them with an apologetic look. 'Sir? Are you alright?'

He nods. 'I'm fine. Just, you look an awful lot like that Frank Castle. I ah, jumped to conclusions. Got scared I was here with a mass murderer.'

Frank offers him a small smile, ignoring the voice in his head screaming it wasn't murder but extermination. 'I've been told that. Think it's the haircut. Marines all look alike you know.' The half-lie is ashes on his tongue but something he has to say if he wants to make sure they get out of here scot free.

Before the man can reply, Red mutters into Frank's arm, 'Dad's not a murderer,' in an offended voice Frank's sure he means for the man to hear.

God he hopes Red means for the man to hear.

'I know kid,' the man says, with a soft smile. 'Sorry kid, I... I didn't mean to imply. He's good, to take you here. Help you with everything.'

Red nods. 'I know. He's awesome.' Frank has to duck his own head, biting back the feelings threatening to burst out of him. 'Awesome Dad.'

The man nods and walks away, leaving them alone. 'Come on kid,' Frank says, tugging at Matt. 'Let's grab El-Ellie and go get a bite to eat.'

'Can we play some more after?' Matt turns his head back towards the basketball game and Frank resolves to hunt down another game in this place the kid can play after lunch. Maybe the air hockey?

'Sure.'

********

Lunch is a brief affair, both kids wolfing down the nuggets and fries they ordered in record time. Only Frank's offer to get something sweet too keeps them at the table long enough for him to give his burger the attention it deserves.

He has to take the coffee to go.

Directing them towards the air hockey table, Frank gets to drink his coffee as he plays referee again; this time to a vicious game of air hockey. Matt's cane is folded up and under his arm so they avoid a crowd, which is probably a good thing considering the many amazing shots Matt manages with the puck. One bounces off Frank at one point, which he declares is a point for Elektra as the puck shouldn't be hitting him .

She wins overall, something that has her gloating as they move aside for someone else to play. Matt tries to move them towards the basketball but Frank steers them back to the more isolated Skee Ball. Another fierce competition occurs, but Frank refuses to referee beyond stepping in to stop them ki-hurting the other. In this game, sabotage is now fair play.

Finally Frank checks his watch and realises it's nearly four and they've been here all day. They have to leave now if they want any time to prepare before tonight. While a part of him yearns to stay, to ignore his responsibilities and let the kids be kids forever, the rest of him knows he has to go. With a whistle, he breaks up the game.

'Time to go kids,' he says.

Matt slinks to his side, taking his cane and slipping an arm into Frank's. 'Do we have enough tickets for a prize?' he asks in a soft voice, almost like he expects a 'no'.

Frank quickly checks the state of the tickets they've won. 'Looks like we've got enough for a couple of prizes,' he says with a smile, not in the least bit surprised. Both kids have been winning big all day.

Elektra tilts her head, darting round to Frank's other side. 'A prize? What prize?'

Guiding them to the prize counter, Frank gestures at the things there. 'Any one of them, depending on what tickets we've got.' Elektra straightens and her gaze darts from Frank to the prizes and back again. Slowly, as if waiting for him to pull her back, she moves to the counter and starts to inspect the things on offer.

'Anything?'

'Anything you want,' Frank confirms. 'I think we'll have the tickets for it.' He leads Matt over too. 'Ah, there's a lot of things here kid. Anything in particular I should look for?' Matt shrugs. 'Right. Well, there's a bunch of slime; ah, some stuffed toys on the wall; um, rings; toy guns; alarm clock; bow and arrow; ah, st-'

'Bow and arrow?' Matt says breathlessly. 'Real one?'

Frank gives it another look over. 'Toy one kiddo. You can have a real one if you ever learn to shoot straight.'

That gets a laugh from Matt and an anxious look from the attendant who just walked up. Frank shoots him a disarming smile and the guy looks a touch less nervous. 'Just the bow and arrow?'

'I want that,' Elektra cuts in, pointing at... at a necklace, silver with a tiny knife pendant, sitting on one of those fancy necklace holder things. It doesn't look that cheap and Frank does a quick mental recount of their tickets. But the 'price' on it is about the same as the bow...

'Oh, good choice!' The attendant says, pulling the necklace out. 'Don't worry,' he whispers to Frank as he hands over the tickets, 'it's silver plated not real silver, so it won't matter if she loses it.' Ah. Makes sense.

Elektra puts the necklace on immediately, giving Frank a look as if daring him to challenge her. He just smiles. 'Looks lovely sweetie. What do you think Matty?'

Matt smirks, clutching his bow and arrow tightly. 'Looks amazing,' he says and Elektra makes a face at him.

Frank laughs. 'Come on kids, let's go home.'

Home. To prepare for battle. To prepare to lose these kids - his kids - again.

At least though, no matter what comes, he'll have this day to hold onto.

********

Every minute of the walk back to his place feels like seconds, even as each step becomes harder with an ever growing weight that seems to form in his heart. But he does it, for what else can he do. Frank Castle is many awful things but he is not one to give up, not one to run. Hell, isn't that the basis of half the issues Red has with him? His determination not to let up on the other monsters of this city, no matter what the cost to himself.

In no time at all, they're opening the doorway to his apartment. There's a package on the doorstep, Ellie's neat note on it. She's a God-send for Frank, always willing to let him order things under her name... at least if they're legal. He's not sure if she realises or cares who he is, she seems the type to do that for anyone.

'What's that?' Matt asks as he sits down at the table. Elektra takes the bed for her seat, glaring at Frank as if to dare him to protest.

He's not going to. 'Things we need for tonight.' Both kids sit up straighter at that, their lips starting to twitch into hopeful grins. 'I ain't stupid, you'll come no matter what I do. So you gotta agree to ground rules before you do.'

'Anything,' Matt says, leaning forward and taking his glasses off so Frank can see the delight in his eyes. Elektra just nods, though the rapid movements of her nod give away her eagerness.

Frank swallows a laugh, and the accompanying bitter taste in his mouth. God he should not be so amused about kids being eager to go into battle. 'First rule: My word is law. I say you do something, you do it. Then and there. I say duck, you're on the floor. I say left, you go left. I say leave me and get out of there-' both kids open their mouths to protest but Frank holds up a hand and they shut their mouths, 'you get out of there like all the demons of hell are at your heels. Got it?'

'Bu-'

'Got. It?' Matt gives him a mutinous look but nods. Elektra's glare is just as dangerous but she nods too. 'Good. Second rule: You got someone who needs killing, I do it.' Elektra rises and Frank glares at her until she throws herself back onto the bed. 'We're going to have witnesses; innocent witnesses,' he explains and some of the tenseness in Elektra's posture loosens, 'and they're not going to see anyone but me kill. Got it?'

Matt's nod is automatic but this rule was never meant for him. Elektra does nod too and a second later, Matt nods again without prompting. She's not lying.

'Final rule: If things go to hell in there, if you get separated from me and you can't find me, you get out and you come here. You stay right here. Wait twenty-four hours then go to a woman called Karen Page.' The confusion in the room is so thick Frank can practically taste it but he ignores it. 'She works at the Bulletin. Give her your full names and say Frank Castle sent you; she'll help you. You can trust her. I do.' Matt opens his mouth - to question, to speak, to protest, who knows? - and Frank shakes his head. 'Got it?'

'Yes,' they say together.

'Right. Time to gear up.'

********

Matt spends much of their trip - slinking through the shadows of alleyways and darting along streets only when they absolutely have to - sulking and fidgeting. Every moment makes the bullet resistant vest he has on move, causing more fidgeting. He'd be protesting having to wear it, Frank's sure, if Elektra didn't jam her elbow into his side every time he opens his mouth.

Frank doesn't care. As annoying as this country's gun laws are sometimes, they've made it so buying child sized 'bullet proof' vests is somewhat easy and not at all suspicious. Even if both kids think wearing them, hidden under dark clothes, is stupid as hell.

They'd settled a bit when Elektra made Frank draw his skull on both vests. Somehow that makes them better, no matter that they're not going to be visible to anyone.

Feeling his heart start to pound again, with delight or something warm and fuzzy, Frank turns his thoughts to their mission. They're a block away, no time for distractions.

'Kid, how surrounded are we?'

They pause under a fire escape as Matt tilts his head and closes his eyes. 'This building and the one behind it also have people on the roof.'

'Also?' Elektra asks before Frank can. 'There's people on this roof too?' Matt nods. 'How many in the building?'

Matt shakes his head. 'I... I can't. There's too many and kids... kids are crying , screaming, hur-' He bites his lip and screws up his face.

Frank's at his side a second later, putting his hands on Matt's cheek's. 'Hey, hey, hey. Kid, focus. Listen to me, focus on my heart. Ignore everything else and focus on me.' For a second - two seconds - he thinks it hasn't worked. Then Matt's breathing begins to even out, careful breaths that slowly start to match Frank's measured breathing. 'You good?'

'Yeah. Yeah.'

'Elektra, you and Matt stay together. Keep him safe,' Matt huffs up, outrage in every pore of his body, 'and Matt, you keep her safe. But Elektra is in charge, right?'

For a moment Frank thinks Matt's going to protest. Then he nods. 'Okay.'

Kid's got sense at least. 'Right. Follow me in then. Ma- Red. Kid you're Red now, got it?' Matt nods. 'Elektra you're Penny. No names.'

'What about you?'

'Kid they already know my name. No point in hiding it.' Matt bites at his lip but nods.

Frank takes a deep breath. 'Okay. Let's go.'

********

He takes point to get in, his usual arsenal of weapons no match for the guards. Even ones that were clearly waiting for him, judging by the way they start firing the second he's in sight.

'Their aim is shit,' Elektra comments as she and Matt step over the last body, to get to Frank's side. She slams the door shut behind them, locking it with a quick movement. Matt's idea.

Frank's so proud, he feels like his heart could burst. Even if it's a bitter thing to have the kid fighting, at least he's using his head more than his fists while doing it. Good kid. Elektra too.

'They must be stormtroopers,' Matt quips and Frank can't help huffing in surprise at the reference. He shouldn't be as surprised as he is. 'I can hear three people coming,' Matt says, the playful tone gone from his voice. 'And there's a lot of fast heartbeats below us.'

Time to divide and conquer. The entrance to the basement is only a few feet down the hallway from the outside door, an easily defensible position. 'How many adults?'

'Two? Maybe three. I can smell their deodorant from here.' He wrinkles his nose. 'It's not actually helping; they need a shower.'

'Go. I'll be there in five minutes. If I'm not, get the kids out and follow the plan.'

They nod and vanish down the stairs to the basement. Frank stands in front of them and waits.

He's not waiting long. Seems word has got around that the Punisher is making good on his threat and a lot more than three people are taking him up on the implied offer to die. They all have to come down the narrow hallway and even if Frank is facing fire from both sides, it's still a damned good bottleneck.

One of the idiots racing down the hallway wing him, a burst of fire across his shoulder. He can't help the hiss-

'Frank?' Matt's calls out, far enough away that his voice is faint and shit, damnit, God fucking damnit. That hearing should be fucking illegal .

Time for a tactical retreat. Frank takes two steps down, slamming the basement door shut before sprinting for the floor. He doesn't want to be caught on the stairs. The basement is bigger than he thought it would be - at least three times the size of his small apartment. And nearly completely dark, to his annoyance. At least it's empty; kids must have gotten the other kids out. Intel suggested a back entrance, so that's where Frank heads. Helps there's a light source somewhere along that back wall.

'Frank!' Elektra cries out, panic in her voice. She's closer than Matt was and that's it. He sprints towards her voice, barely caring about the men following him - a lot by the thunderous sound of footsteps behind him. He stumbles a few times, on boxes and blankets he didn't see but for the most part he manages forward motion towards the back of the room.

There's a doorway there, a light in the darkness, and he ducks through it, one of his guns drawn. And freezes.

Elektra is standing in the middle of the room, a man right behind her pulling her head back and putting a knife to her throat. At her feet lies Matt, on his back with his eyes shut and blood glistering on his forehead. Coldness rushes through Frank until he notices the gradual rise and fall of Matt's chest.

He's still alive.

Frank can fix this.

Frank has to fix this.

'What do you want?' he says to the man with the knife. Asshole #1 right now.

'Drop your weapon.'

Frank's gun is clanging on the floor before Asshole #1 finishes his sentence. 'Okay, now let her go.'

But the man just smiles and shakes his head. 'She, and the boy on the floor, are the reason we have no stock right now. Why would I let them go when I'm in such desperate need of more?' They got the other kids out. Thank God. Now to get them out too.

'You're dead if you don't,' Frank says softly. 'But let 'em both go and I might be too busy to hunt you down.'

Behind him, he hears the sound of more men thundering through the doorway. They all cock their guns at the sight of him. He swallows but pushes down the shaking threatening to take over his limbs. He's fought worse odds.

'We both know I'm not the one in danger right now.' On the floor Matt twitches and only Frank's long training stops him jerking in surprise.

'Don't move until I say Red,' he mutters as softly as he can and Matt... Matt twitches a finger towards him. 'You know you're not the first asshole to say that to me,' he says louder. 'Ain't none of them walked away either.'

Asshole #1 shifts in place. None of the others are talking, he must be some kind of leader. Good. 'You have a half dozen guns pointed at you,' he says in disbelief, 'and you still think you can win?'

Frank grins. 'Yes.

Squinting at him, Asshole #1 tilts his head and makes a fatal mistake. He lowers the knife slightly.

'Duck Penny! Now!'

Elektra hits the floor as Matt snaps out a foot, knocking Asshole #1 off balance. Frank throws himself backwards, into the asshole directly behind him. He disarms the man in a swift movement, taking two hits to his vest from behind. Feels like a sledgehammer hitting his back but he ignores the pain. He can't afford to give into it.

He takes the gun in his hand and shoots three of the men in the head with three rapid shots. The next second he's moving, spinning around to get the other three. One is quick enough to move aside but the others aren't, so it's down to a one on one battle. This guy is clever enough to be trying for headshots instead of the chest, but doesn't seem to have the ability to make it stick. Especially not with the way Frank's keeping his head moving and tucked down as much as he can.

It's easy enough to put a sixth bullet in the man's head and discard the empty gun.

Satisfied, he turns to see how the kids are doing. It's like a complete reversal of the image Frank walked in on. Elektra has Asshole #1 in a hold, her knife at his throat. Matt is leaning on the table in the middle of the room, smiling at Frank, though it is a bit too dazed for Frank's liking.

'You done?' Frank asks with a smile.

'Should have given us a harder job,' Elektra says and tightens her grip. 'Ready to do the honours?'

Frank walks up with slow and measured steps. He grabs Asshole #1's chin, forcing him to meet Frank's eyes. 'I want you dead. Remember that.' He steps back. 'Let him go. Police'll be here soon and this asshole's the leader. They'll need him to figure out how to reverse everything.'

He has to get the kids to Karen, he realises. Tell her they're involved in this shitstorm, get her to get them fixed or raise 'em right. She'll know what to do, better than anything Fra-

Asshole #1 is laughing. Why the hell is he laughing. 'What? You actually want to die?'

'You think this needs reversing? It's temporary ; never managed to get it to last more than three days or so.' Asshole #1 eyes the two kids. 'These are our work, aren't they? Have they started to feel the aches? Has the fire of growing spread through their veins yet? I hope the pain kills you to-'

Frank is in his face before he's aware of moving. 'This is temporary?' Asshole #1 nods, eyes wide and fearful. 'And the reversing can be fatal?' Another nod. 'And you thought telling me this would be funny?' A third nod - a final nod.

'Your last laugh,' Frank growls. He disarms Elektra in one rapid movement and uses her knife to slit Asshole #1's throat in another. The body drops to the floor with a final sounding thump.

'Are we going to die?' Matt asks in a soft voice, breaking the silence that's been ringing in Frank's ears.

'No kid,' Frank says, dragging Elektra with him as he moves to pull Matt into a hug. 'I promise, you'll get through this.'

It's barely a lie but from the way Matt buries his head in Frank's shoulder, he hears it anyway.

********

Matt cocks his head, some indeterminate time later. Frank instantly tenses. 'How far?'

'Five blocks? We did like you said, put a kid in charge and told them to run to the 15th.' He burrows - there's no other word to describe it - his head into Frank's shoulder. 'Then you cried out and I didn't mean to but-'

'Shhh,' Frank hisses, drawing away from them both. 'Not here. You did good kids but not here.' He looks at the blood on his hands, leaving bloody handprints on both Elektra and Matt. 'Come on.'

Matt leads them, sure footsteps taking them through the nearly invisible doorway at the other end of the room. There's a second set of stairs there and he pauses at the top. 'Two people?'

Elektra moves past him and inch by inch pushes the door open. 'Two people,' she confirms. 'One and four.'

Frank draws the handgun he keeps hidden in his leg holster. 'Three you throw it open and protect Red.' Before Matt can protest, he starts counting. 'One, two, THREE!'

Elektra throws the door open with a bang, throwing herself over Matt's body in the next second so they're pushed up against the wall. Her information is spot on and Frank's already aiming when the two men there see him. He doesn't miss.

In the corner of his eyes, he sees how Matt flinches with each shot. 'Too loud kid?'

'They're too quiet,' he says softly. 'When their hearts stop; it's too quiet.'

Well fuck. But Frank can hear the approaching sirens; now is not the time. 'Quickly,' he says, grabbing Matt's hand to drag him along. Elektra grabs his other, running out in front so he's being pulled along by her. It's like some bloody conga line or some shit like that.

'M-Red, which way?' Elektra asks as they stumble out the back entrance, past the trucks that hide this place's true purpose.

'They're coming from all directions,' Matt says softly, his eyes wide.

'Then we go up,' Frank says, staring at the skyline of his city.

It's still dangerous. But getting the kids across the roofs of Hell's Kitchen and away from the warehouse seems the only thing to do. He can't leave them - they won't let him, after everything they still trust him and no way they'll stay behind - and he refuses let them be arrested. The blood on the kids' hands and bodies would implicate them in Frank's murders and once they're adults they'll be accessories. Hell, they're old enough they'll probably be accessories as kids.

And there is no way on God's green Earth he's letting them suffer for his crimes.

'Come on.'

They've just made it onto the roof of a nearby building when the red and blue lights enter the street beneath them. Elektra and Frank duck. A second later, Frank reaches up and drags the confused Matt down too, tucking him into his chest. 'Lights,' he whispers and feels Matt's nod.

Elektra shuffles closer, so she's pressed against his side. The red and blue lights continue to light the roof up, giving the place an eerie glow. Frank draws Elektra even closer, so she's tucked up next to Matt.

Both of them are shaking, ever so slightly. Frank's sure if they weren't so close, he'd never have known. 'We'll be okay,' he whispers, as the shouts of the police below them reaches his ears. 'We'll be okay.'

BANG!

'They just kicked the door in,' Matt supplies unnecessarily.

'Our cue,' Frank says, already halfway to his feet. The kids are dragged along in his wake, his hold on them getting them both standing - if stumbling around a bit. 'We have to move before they think to search surrounding buildings.'

'Okay,' they say together and Frank hopes that's this isn't the last time he hears their voices.

********

They make it to his apartment.

Frank finds himself thanking a God he's not believed in for years as they stumble over the threshold of his home. He collapses in his chair while Elektra falls onto the bed.

But Matt... Matt drops to his knees by the doorway and leans against the wall, panting. Frank sits up, his heart starting to pound.

'Matt? You okay kid?'

With a groan, Matt rises. He makes it two steps before he falls, landing on his hands and knees with a final sounding thump. Frank's at his side before he registers moving. He puts a hand against Matt's forehead and hisses at the heat he feels there.

'What's wrong?' he demands. 'Come on kid, please.'

'Hurts,' Matt grits out. 'Hurts. Dad, it hurts.' A knife plunges into his chest but Frank has to keep it together.

He looks up at Elektra. 'Get me a bowl of cold water, now.' She nods and stumbles - oh shit, stumbles - towards the kitchen. Frank eyes her but he has to deal with Matt first. Striping Matt of his dark clothes and heavy vest is easy; his movements much more practiced than he thought they would be. He lifts Matt with gentle hands and puts him into the bed, throwing the duvet across the room. It's not needed.

SMASH!

Frank snaps around at the sound of shattering china, meeting Elektra's wide eyes with his own. He's sprinting across the room in the next second, getting his arms around her as she swoons. A hand to her forehead confirms she's as hot as Matt. 'Shit,' he swears. Striping her is a little more awkward but he has to get the vest off; it's only going to make her hotter.

For lack of better options, he puts her in the bed beside Matt. God he wishes he had another bed. It's agony to turn his back on them to get a bowl of cold water but he manages. Shit, does he have any cloths? A frantic search turns up a pair of rags, dirty but nothing a quick rinse doesn't mostly fix. He folds them neatly and places them on the kids foreheads.

God he needs to know their temperature. He needs medicine, just in case treating the fever is what's needed to keep them alive long enough to return to adulthood. He needs someone capable, if push comes to shove, of taking both children to a hospital.

He needs help.

********

Finding her number isn't hard but making the call is. It takes three attempts before he manages to dial the number, and only Matt's groan keeps him on the line.

'Karen Page.'

'You need to listen to me for three minutes. Then, if you don't like what I have to say you can hang up. But please, give me three minutes.'

'Frank? Why-'

He takes a deep breath but he can't keep the panic from his voice. 'Please. Three minutes. Hang up now if you can't give me that.'

There's a long pause on the other end of the line and he's so sure she's hung up. Then, 'Three minutes.'

Oh thank God. 'That shitstorm, with the kids on 11th. I was in-'

'Frank, an idiot could figure out you were invol-'

'I have two of the kids,' he cuts her off and hears her soft gasp. 'Only they're not kids Karen. What do you know about what's happening?'

'They're saying they broke up a child pornography ring,' she says slowly, 'and I only know that because one of the guys here was investigating it before things went down.'

Great. This is going to sound nuts then. 'Red and I went to have a look, two days ago. He brought a friend. They... they got hit by something and suddenly they're kids.' He can hear her breathing and rushes to add, 'I ain't lying Karen. Saw it happen with my-'

'I know,' she says, her voice soft. 'You... you don't lie to me. You never have.' Something like relief floods through him. 'Why are you calling?'

'The thing... the thing that made them kids, it wears off. Only, they're sick. They're real sick.' Each word hurts but it feels like it's being dragged out of him; he has to say it. 'And I need things. But... But I can't; I can't lea-'

'What do you need?'

Frank throws his head back, the relief he's feeling making his body feel weightless. He rattles off a list of things - medicine, thermometer, jello - on autopilot, barely hearing Karen's replies beyond the sense that she's coming, she'll be here.

Help is on the way.

Hanging up, Frank notices the blood still on Elektra's hands and Matt's face. The stark contrast between their ever paling skin and the bright red blood makes something crawl down his spine. He rises and grabs a towel, dipping the edge of it into the bowl of water. With careful, slow, movements, he wipes the blood off them.

It dawns on him that his lips are moving, his voice muttering something in the stillness of the room. Wha-

'-pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen. Our Father who art-'

It shouldn't feel so right, to pray to a God he has no faith in, but for now, there's not much else he can do. Besides, God might not give a shit about him but for Elektra... for Matt...

Well, he's willing to do anything.

********

Karen bursts into his apartment, a flurry of sound that cuts through the silence filling it like his desperate prayers never could. He's on his feet in an instant as she freezes just in the doorway.

'Holy shit,' she says in a whisper as Frank closes the door behind her and her bags. 'That's... that's either Matt or some kid that looks a hell of a lot like him.'

'Kid's blind but can hear a heartbeat. Knew where my dishes were by scent alone. You make up your mind,' he says, taking one bag to dig through. He grunts in frustration when it's empty of what he needs, dropping it on the table so he can take and dig through the other. 'Aha.' He pulls out his prize - a thermometer.

Karen shakes her head. 'I knew you weren't lying but...'

'One thing to know it, another thing to know it?' he asks as he kneels down beside the bed. 'Hey Matty,' he says in the softest voice he has.

'Dad?' Matt asks, rolling his head in Frank's direction. ''m tired. It hurts.'

'I know kid, I know. Come on, need to put this in your ear for a sec, okay kid?' Matt groans, but rolls his head back, letting Frank take his temperature. An eon passes before it beeps and Frank can check it.

One hundred and three point nine degrees. Shit. Frank scrambles to check Elektra's. She tries to push him off but he says, 'Shh darling, just me,' and her weak but still well placed blows stop.

A hundred and three point five. Bad. Not quite as bad as Matt's but still bad.

'How bad?' Karen asks and Frank looks back over his shoulder to see her hovering by the table, the medicines he asked for lined up along it.

He sighs. 'Pretty bad. Hundred and three point nine for Matt, hundred and three point five for Elektra.'

'Shit.’ Karen bites at her lip. ‘Elektra? Is... is that her name? Matt... Matt never mentioned it.'

That causes him to raise an eyebrow. 'That don't surprise me. Still not sure if they like or hate another.' He rises and looks over the arrangement of medication on his table. 'Only asked for some Tylenol and something to stop dehydration.'

'Yeah well, I'm prepared for anything-'

Matt moans, a long drawn out noise that turns into a scream. Elektra echoes the noise a second later. Frank drops the thermometer, darting back to their side with such force that he feels the hit to his knees as he drops to the floor.

'Shhh, it's okay! Shhhh-'

Elektra starts to flail, crying out in halting noises as she seemingly tries to breathe through the pain. One of her blows strikes Matt's head and he tries to hit back, only succeeding in whacking at her side.

'Take Matt!' Frank calls to Karen, rolling him gently out of bed and into her arms. Then he gently rolls Elektra towards him, ducking her wild blows.

'What's wrong? Where's it hurt?'

She screws up her face. 'Everywhere. My bones . Has the Hand poisoned me?'

Oh God, she thinks she's been poisoned . 'No, you're just sick. You'll be okay, you just have to breathe. In and out. In and out- Matty, you too,' he says, turning to look down at Matt, groaning in Karen's arms. 'Get painkillers,' he mouths at her and she nods, shifting Matt so he's leaning against Frank.

Matt grabs onto Frank's arm like a koala. 'Da-'

'Kid, I ain't your Dad,' he says softly, though each word is a knife in his throat. Karen gasps but he ignores her.

'Dad,' Matt repeats stubbornly. 'Please don't make me take anything. I can make it through the pain. Mind controls the body. Please don't leave because I'm wea-'

Frank can't listen to another word. 'Shh kid. I ain't leave. Promise.' Karen silently passes him a pair of pills and two, only slightly dirty glasses of water. 'But if you take this, it'll make me happy.'

Matt nods after a long moment, and takes the pill. With Frank's help, he's able to get most of one glass of water down. Elektra follows suit, seemingly not going to protest after seeing Matt do it.

Helping Matt back into bed, Frank finds himself praying this ends fast.

********

The kids drop off to sleep after a half hour, tossing and turning on the too small bed but not groaning in pain anymore.

Of course, Karen takes this as her cue to talk. To push. To find out more. If it wasn't for the fact he basically invited this by asking for her help, Frank would have... well he would have done something. Maybe.

'How long have you had them?' she asks softly.

He shakes his head. 'Two days. Two damned days.' Looking out at the light creeping through the blinds of his window he adds, 'Today makes three. Asshole in there said it don't last beyond three days.'

'What did you do together?'

Frank eyes her, seeing the curious glint in her eyes and the determined set of her mouth. 'Matt ever tell you about his childhood?'

She frowns but shakes her head. 'He's ah, a bit tight lipped about it.'

'I ain't going to betray that then,' he says and he sees the way she grits her teeth and looks away. 'I can't Karen. I won't be another asshole in his life.'

With very slow movements, she turns her head back to look at him. 'You care about him... them?'

It's his turn to look away, to try to escape that knowing gaze. God, she's right. They're more than Red and his weird partner no; they're Matt and Elektra, his twin shadows and new suns in the darkness that is his life. 'They're just kids. Deserve much better than me.'

'Then why did you keep them? Why not call me earlier?'

He has to give her this, or she'll never leave him alone. 'They're soldiers too,' he says and he feels Karen tense. 'That's the reason I didn't give 'em to someone like you.' Looking over, he sees how wide her eyes are. 'Both of those kids there could take you down without any effort and Elektra'd kill you if she thought it was needed.' With a smile and a shrug he adds, 'Matty wouldn't, but that's it's his morals not his abilities stopping him.'

'Jesus.'

'He's got nothing to do with it,' Frank says. 'The Devil did this to them and I'm going to hunt him down when this is over.'

She looks over at the sleeping kids. 'Will it help them?'

Yes. No. Maybe. Does it matter? He tries to find an answer, words to push out his mouth and into Karen's ears but every word he tries to use disappears into the lump growing in his throat. They sit there in silence as he struggles.

Eventually Karen must notice his struggle and realise it's not going to end. 'If you need anything else,' she says softly, gathering her things.

'I have your number. When... when they're adults again, I'll send Ma-Red, your way.'

She nods and pauses in the doorway, looking at the kids with a frown. 'Are... are they taller?' Frank turns to look two and gets up with a swear as she goes, 'They are, look at Matt.'

Oh God, she's right. Matt as a kid was shorter than Elektra, though not by much. But now they exactly the same height - and that height is definitely taller than before, judging by the way Elektra's pants are now only three quarter pants, where before they'd been full length.

'Shit,' Frank swears.

It sums the situation up nicely.

********

Three hours after Karen leaves, Matt coughs himself awake. Frank nearly drops his mug of coffee in his haste to get to Matt's side, helping him to sit up without disturbing the still sleeping Elektra.

'In and out, breathe,' Frank says and Matt tilts his head so he can give Frank an unfocused glare. He looks to be about fourteen now, but as neither kid has grown any taller Frank's not sure he can really judge. 'I think one of the things Karen brought was cough medicine. You want some?'

Matt makes a face. 'They taste like shit.' But he nods, causing another round of coughs. Beside him, Elektra stirs.

'Just 'cause you're taller doesn't mean you can use language,' Frank warns, pouring out a measure of the first cough medication he finds that looks like it'll help. 'And no medicine good for you ever tastes nice.'

He hands Matt the little cup and Matt swallows it in a single gulp, with another face. They swap the small cup for the glass of water in Frank's hands. He then pours out another measure of medicine - this time for Elektra, who's also started to cough.

'It was nice,' Matt says in a small voice, falling back into the bed. 'Before. I used to like medicine, cause it tasted nice. Dad said I was weird.'

'You are,' Elektra says with her own grimace at the cough medicine. 'That is foul.' She too falls back into the bed. 'Your Dad was right.'

That gets a small smile from Matt. 'He usually was.'

Frank laughs, a soft thing. 'Bet you never said that to him.'

Matt smirks. 'Course not. You never tell Dads they're right.' Elektra yawns and Matt echoes it a moment later. 'Never.'

********

Half an hour later and Elektra's drifted back into sleep, something that has Frank grateful as Matt's laboured breathing indicates they're probably experiencing another growth spurt. Even now he can see the hem of her pants creeping up her legs whenever he focuses on it. He's not looking forward to the moment when he has to wake her to get her into clothes that fit.

Matt might not have that indicator - being in boxers and a tightening white vest - but his groans are far more obvious.

'Come on kid, breathe.' Frank eyes the painkillers but he's just given Matt another dose and they have to wait for them to take effect before he considers another. 'I'm here, just breathe.'

'Dad?' Matt asks, lost again to whatever hallucination takes him occasionally. Both kids have warm foreheads but it is a touch colder to Frank's mind.

'No kid. It's Frank. I'm... I'm your friend.'

Matt gives a soft smile. 'I know,' he whispers, eyes glassy with unshed tears. 'Like a Dad... maybe you'll stay if you are.'

Oh kid, who the hell fucked you up this bad? 'I'd stay even if I wasn't,' he whispers.

But Matt shakes his head. 'No one stays. 'Cause, cause of the Devil. Grandma always said there was a Devil in the Murdock boys. Got Dad killed and and Stick wanted me to be it but I can't, cause that's wrong. No one stays, cause I'm.. I've got a Devil.'

Well fuck. Not just this monster that fucked the kid up, though he certainly didn't help. ‘You know kid, earlier you asked what you were like as an adult.’ Matt raises an eyebrow but nods, still huffing tight breaths, and grimacing every so often. God Frank wishes he could just reach into Matt and take the pain from him. He'd suffer it himself, if it meant either kid got some relief. ‘I lied.’

‘What? No you didn’t.’

Frank has to smile at the outrage in Matt’s voice. ‘You rely on that hearing of yours too much. A lie by omission is still a lie kid, but you’d not be able to pick it up.’

‘Oh. How… how did you lie?’

‘Called you a pain in my ass. And you are kid, so damned much. You’re so goddamned stubborn - yeah I know, Lord’s name,’ he cuts Matt off. ‘Do as I say not do, remember that. You’re stubborn and…. And… and the most moral man I know. A good man.’

‘What?’

‘You kid, grow up to be one of the good guys. One of those genuinely good men that so rarely walk the Earth. You are so goddamned stubborn because you refuse to believe that there is such a thing as a man without some good in him. You would fight to save a murderer’s life with the same ferocity as you do to save a child. The man I know doesn’t have the devil in him… or if he does, it ain’t one he’s listening to.’

Matt gives him a soft smile. 'I think I'll like being grown up, if you're beside me.'

'I'll be where I have to be,' Frank says as Matt's eyes close and his head drops. His breathing evens out. Asleep.

'You really need to learn about lies of omission kid.'

********

It takes another three hours for them to grow to a height that means Frank can't call them kids anymore. Matt's a little floppy haired, in a way that makes him look baby faced and young but Frank's nearly certain they're adults now. Or close enough to it.

He calls Karen. 'They're done. Both of them need clothes; Matt's armour is somewhere around here but it's not exactly day wear.'

'I'll be over soon. How are they?'

Frank looks over the sleeping figures, somehow as peaceful now as they had been as children. As sweet now as they had been as children. 'Sleeping. Door'll be unlocked when you come; I'll leave the armour and what I can find of Elektra's clothes in a bag on the table.'

He hangs up on her protests and moves through the apartment with speed and silence. Neither ki- person stirs and he's able to grab a handgun and cap before slipping out of the apartment.

They aren't going to want to see him when they wake.

He can't see them when they wake.

His feet lead him through the streets without conscious thought, though he's not sure he's currently capable of much more than walking and existing. Eventually his feet take his numb mind to where he needs to be. Sitting on the bench, near the carousel of his old life, Frank stares at the bright horses. The crushing sense of something missing, something gone, a hole in his hear that can never be fixed, begins to creep back into his mind. It cuts a hole through the numbness that brought him here, to this spot of happiness... and disaster.

There's a moment when he thinks he can fend it off, can just sit here and be numb but as always the grief is a burden too big to bear... and this time it's doubled; the happy laughter of Lisa and Frank mixing in with Matt and Elektra's delighted cheers at their successes. Like a glass window shattering, something in his mind breaks and lets the loss race through him like a wave, chased by the fiery anger.

How dare God give him back something he thought gone forever and then take it in one swoop? How DARE He? And how stupid is he to fall for it; to let himself care. FRANK you idiot.

When he's finished mourning his children - all four, God be damned to every bit of Hell - he sits there a while longer, waiting for the tears to dry.

********

EPILOGUE

For a week he avoids his home like it contains the plague, determined not to be there. Sleeping rough isn’t hard; he’s slept in worse places for longer and he sees a lot of New York at night. It’s not too hard to know where things are and where to go when you spend as much time as Frank does on the streets.

Sometimes he sees a flash of red in the corner of his eyes; a shadow’s shadow that’s gone by the time he turns around. Sometimes he gets the sensation of being watched, that feeling of something crawling up your spine when someone’s eyes are on you. But again, when he turns, there’s nothing there but empty shadows and the ghosts that haunt him.

Finally, he gets himself together enough to face going home, to crawl back into his soulless home and return to his colourless life.

He knows, the moment he touches the unlocked door, that someone is in his apartment. For a moment - two moments - he considers walking away; retreating back onto the streets. It would be easier, better, so much kinder on them both-

A cough from inside, gentle but pointed. Right, Matt’ll find him wherever he runs and it seems like he’s had enough of Frank’s methods. Fucking alterboy. Feeling like he’s moving a mountain not a door, he pushes the door and enters his apartment.

Matt’s wearing probably the most casual clothing Frank’s ever seen him wear… well wear as an adult. He’s sitting on the edge of Frank’s bed, glasses resting at his side, fiddling with his cane and somehow managing to seem both completely awkward and right at home. When Frank enters, he tilts his head towards him but keeps his head lowered and eyes on the cane twitching in his hands.

‘You here for a reason Red?’ Frank’s voice is steady, unlike the rest of him.

Matt quirks his lips. ‘Do I have to have one?’ His voice is deeper than it was a kid, but Frank can hear the child he loves- loved in it.

Frank shrugs. ‘Always thought you were too moral of a man to break into another man’s home without a reason. But I could have misjudged you.’ Briefly he considers offering Matt a beer but the feel of the small child in his arms - warm, steady and there -  combines with the memory of his trusting face. No, he’s not going to be able to watch Matt drink right now.

‘Maybe,’ Matt says, the smirk on his lips sitting in his voice. ‘You always seem to think I’m a better man than I am.’ The Devil, he’d said, and isn’t that still a kick to the teeth?

If only Matt weren’t blind. The look Frank’s giving him showcases every inch of his disbelief and even after everything he’s still not sure how much of it Matt can perceive. ‘Says the altar boy.’

That gets a laugh from Matt but nothing more. He continues fiddling with his cane. There’s something off about it though… it’s…. It’s too short. Frank blinks as he realises Matt’s holding the cane he brought, despite it being at least a foot too small for him. ‘Matt?’

‘I remember it, you know?’ he says and Frank freezes, ice combining with something bubbling in his chest. ‘Not all of it, it’s a bit fuzzy. Like when you try and remember things you did as a kid.’ He laughs. ‘Well, I guess it’s exactly like… like that. But sort… sort of… clearer. I think back to being twelve and it’s memories of you and Elektra that come to mind first.’

‘How is she?’ Asking after her should not feel like it does. Half hope, half exasperation, all mingled in an emotion he refuses to name. Like asking after a dau- no.

A soft smile slips onto Matt’s face. ‘She’s in the wind but… but I think she’s okay. She left a note saying she was going and that she’ll be back soon which is more than I get usually.’ He shrugs.

‘Good. That’s… good. Glad to hear it.’ God he feels so awkward, worse than anything he’s felt since getting back to find he was living in a world that froze for him when he was away while he sped a thousand miles ahead.

Matt laughs. ‘God, you’re awful at this.’

‘Lord’s name,’ Frank admonishes instinctively then bites his tongue. He’s got no right to say anything, least of all because Matt’s proven over and over he’s a far more righteous and religious man than Frank ever was, even when he still believed.

To his surprise that just gets a laugh out of Matt. ‘I remember that too. You were kinda strict about it, for someone who doesn’t believe anymore.’

Frank sighs. ‘Know it’s important to you and kids pick up bad habits. You gotta make sure they don’t stick, show ‘em the right way even if you can’t manage it yourself.’ He pauses then adds, ‘I stopped believing a lot of things long before I lost them but my kids were always going to be better than I was at this. They were always going to know Him and His love, even if I never could.’

Matt turns his head away, but not before Frank sees a tear in his eyes. ‘He still loves you,’ he says in a soft voice. ‘He has to.’

‘I’m a monster Matt and you can’t speak for Him.’

‘I know.’ Matt turns his head back to look at Frank. Well, ‘look’, sightless eyes pointed in his direction. ‘Did I ever tell you about my Dad?’

Frank blinks in confusion. ‘Not exactly. Picked up a few things.’ Enough to figure the man died, hopefully sometime before Stick got to Matt. His fingers twitch at the thought of the man, as he’s filled with the desire to wrap them around Stick’s throat.

That gets a huff of laughter. ‘Yeah, I figured. He…he wasn’t the best man in the world, I’ll admit it. He was a boxer,’ and doesn’t that explain a lot of things about Matt, ‘and a pretty good one. But he lost more than he won. It paid more you see, and he had me.’ Matt fiddles with his cane, lowering his head. ‘I knew, from the moment I was old enough to know it that I was the most important thing in his life. Never consciously thought about it though; it was just a fact of life. My name was Matt, I was Battlin’ Jack Murdock’s son and he loved me more than anything.’

Frank goes to say something - anything - but Matt continues on, cutting off anything he could say. ‘And one day he made a choice, a choice to be a better man because I asked him to and because what I thought of him was more important than anything… even his own life.’ Frank has to take a deep breath at the pain in Matt’s voice. ‘But he loved me, you know? And despite everything, I know he was a good man. He was a good man. And I wish… I wish I’d told him that, when I could, you know? I regret so much... but nothing more than the fact he might not have known how much I loved him; that he might not have realised I thought he was a good man… the best Dad.’

A tear slips down Matt’s cheek, just one in many. ‘And you know what? You remind me of him. A lot.’ Something pierces Frank’s chest, something sharp, painful and cold. It pushes deep into his heart and spreads through him, driving away any breath he has in his lungs and leaving him gasping. ‘Your actions are deplorable and you take lives you have no right to take but I’ve never doubted that, in your heart, you are a good man Frank.’

‘Matt-’

‘And I trusted you,’ Matt continues as if Frank’s breathless word never happened. ‘From the moment you didn’t lie to me, I trusted you. You might not be a righteous man Frank but you are a good one. God will forgive you; I have to believe he will.’

He rises and Frank is too lost - his thoughts a mess and his voice missing in action - to say anything to stop him. But he pauses in the doorway and sighs, his back to Frank. ‘It’s probably not my place to say, but if you were half the father to your children that you were to me and Elektra, I cannot fathom a world where they did not love you.’

‘I failed them,’ Frank finally manages to get out.

Matt shakes his head. ‘No, the law failed them… and you. You did nothing wrong that day and one day God will let you see them again.’ He takes a deep breath, then adds, ‘And.. and until then, I’ll be beside you. Like you said, You won’t leave me. So I won’t leave you. Promise.’

He’s gone before Frank can reply.  

Two days later Frank finds a mug with #1 Dad! written on it in his clean kitchen, on top of a row of photos - the ones you get from a photo booth. In all of them Matt and Elektra are mucking around, pulling various stupid poses despite being grown adults.

Matt isn’t wearing his glasses in any of them and has his bow and arrow in very shot, though about halfway through the set they seem to fight over it in a desperate tug of war; Matt emerging victorious in the next shot by holding it over Elektra’s head. Elektra’s top is also low cut so it’s easy to make out the silver knife hanging at her throat in every picture.

The final picture is the nicest, the two of them staring at - or in the general direction of - the camera, arms over each other's’ shoulders. This photo makes it clear Matt is wearing the same Daredevil shirt as the one Frank brought him, though in a bigger size judging by its looseness. Elektra’s eyes are bright, her smile actually reaching them. It’s a good photo, the type you’d take of your kids and tuck into a wallet.

On the back, in two sets of handwriting - one admittedly much better than the other - are two phone numbers and the words ‘Thank you Dad.’

Frank uses the mug every morning and tucks the photos in with the photo of Lisa and Frank Karen gave him; the only photo of them he has. Hidden as they are, in the safest of the safe houses he owns, he doesn’t get to look at the pictures much but when he does… Well he finds himself remembering less of Lisa’s final moments and more of the happy ones; those few moments they all got to be a happy family.

He also pretends there’s not a photocopy of both photos - the last one of Matt and Elektra’s lot; and the only one of Lisa and Frank - in his wallet at all times. Paying for things shouldn’t be a bright spot in his day, not even if it means he gets to look on his kids’ faces.

 

 

 

 ARTWORK BY LILFAYT: