It made the news because how the hell could it not? Over twenty hostages and something like fifty ninjas, fifty freaking ninjas, with a few vigilantes thrown in on a dramatic rooftop showdown for good measure, and boom. The story of the goddamn century, at least for now.
The phantom sensations of Daredevil’s suit scraping roughly beneath her fingers and the trembling caress of his glove, light, so light against the side of her face, lingers far after she’s burst out of the grimy warehouse doors and into the cool night air of the city, alive with dank wind and alight with sirens, wailing fit to drown out the cries of the terrified flood of fleeing people rushing headlong towards the tenuous safety of the twitchy police barrier.
The funny thing is, she finds it funny that they’re scared. Funny-odd, not funny-ha-ha. She’s always the one who’s frightened. Frightened out of her wits, out of her mind. Out of her humanity.
There’s a gun on the table. Then in her hand. She doesn’t call his bluff so much as she panics, the fear building until it reaches a breaking point, a snap judgment for self-preservation surging to the fore, base survival winning out.
She’s an animal of a slightly different stripe lost amongst the crowd, a coral snake among non-deadly kingsnakes. Sure, they all look dangerous at first glance, mobs of any sort always do, but look closer. And then closer again. Red to yellow, kill a fellow; red to black, it venom lacks.
Any shitstorm you’re not a part of? Brett asked her as she loped towards him, even in the midst of that mess managing to spare a moment for one of his trademark sardonic remarks, concern overlaid by wry disbelief.
Karen remembers that later, after she’s once more worked her way through police procedure, given her statement, shrugged off the orange shock blanket they tried to drape around her shoulders. The Devil’s tenderness, crackling with familiarity as they reached for each other; overhead gunshots splitting through the chaos, leading her eye to the Punisher’s silhouette stationed far above, a poised menace hewn from stone with death’s face emblazoned over body armor. Brett, asking: Any shitstorm you’re not a part of?
No, she thinks to herself, raw and rueful, seems there isn’t.
She lets herself relive it, sitting in her apartment with its leftover crime scene tape in the doorway and dampness whistling in through the bullet holes gracing her wall, the television replaying the same video clips over and over as serious talking heads lay everything out and pick it all apart. Crime syndicates, ninjas, lingering effects of an extraterrestrial invasion, S.H.I.E.L.D. and Hydra, the Avengers and how their brand of justice may have inspired the vigilantes, the vigilantes in turn inspiring bloodbaths, blah blah blah. Simultaneously trying to reassure, to claim that everything has always gotten better before, we will overcome que sera sera et cetera, even as they circle back again and again to the details in all their gory glory. Trying to make sense of it all.
At one point there’s a report of an ongoing house fire. It's almost a side note but they still show the neighborhood with the firefighters on scene, dousing the last of the blaze smoldering in a framework of charcoal beams and collapsed debris, and she recognizes the house, the hallways she'd crept through with all its ghosts smiling from framed photographs now gone up in flames.
Karen raises the cold, sweating bottle of vodka to her lips, the slender glass neck slippery in her hand, smeared with a murderer’s fingerprints.
Matt tells her he’s Daredevil. Tells her of enhanced senses, a past checkered with isolation and with people who became his whole world before they invariably left him, of demons within him craving violent justice that he can only exorcise through appeasement, through offerings of blood, of busted knuckles and beaten foes.
Karen breathes. In and out, calm, pieces of the puzzle clicking into place, making whole a mosaic she didn’t know was incomplete.
He tells her the entire story. And then she tells him she needs some time. To think. To process.
He’s far too stoic about it as he carefully rewraps the mask with its glitteringly dark eyepieces into the plain brown paper bag, the paper crinkling and creasing as he crumples it around to obscure the shape, as he says that he understands, that he’ll give her as much space and time as she needs. He surely feels more than he’s letting on, disappointment, perhaps, or maybe even grief, but he’s always hidden things from her. Lied to her. It’s to be expected.
She inhales sharply as he reaches for the door handle of their empty office and he turns, eyebrows raised in question, the door swinging only half open, but she can’t find anything to say. He’s offered up the most vulnerable parts of himself, the ugliest, innermost secrets, he’s finally bared his soul to her of his own free will, and when she gropes for accusations or apologies she finds only empty silence.
Matt isn’t the only liar in the room, after all.
She shakes her head and doesn’t narrate the motion for him because she knows now that it would be unnecessary to do so. His eyebrows lower and the corner of his mouth quirks up, in acknowledgment, not amusement, and with a sort of semi-nod, his dark, tousled head dipping and the color of his shades going from red as the spilled blood in a window of stained glass to a flash of reflected white light to red again, he is out the door, and Karen is left, once more, alone.
“What part of ‘you’re dead to me’ did you not understand, Frank,” Karen says to him flatly.
Frank, crouching in order to finish zip-tying the wrists of the unconscious would-be purse-snatcher, speaks with his back still turned. “You’re welcome.” Bent a little forward with his head bowed to the task and his broad shoulders relaxed, the hem of his long coat pooled on the ground around him and his movements efficient but unhurried, he looks like a satiated predator lingering to pick over the bones of its prey.
“I can take care of myself.”
“An’ I believe that. Just needed to talk to you and thought this seemed as good an excuse as any to open a dialogue, is all.”
At least the criminal’s alive, though that’s probably because Frank’s trying to be considerate of Karen’s distaste for decisive slaughter, and because the guy only tried to grab her bag and run rather than stick a weapon in her face and demand money. Or anything worse.
Deep down Karen can’t quite shake the trust she feels in Frank’s presence, her gut instinct unwavering in its conviction that for all his savagery, Frank Castle is there because he has a code of honor, because he cares for her, because he wants to keep her safe.
“You’ve been stalking me?”
“Following.” Frank stands, his coat unfurling to hang down to the backs of his knees. “Just for tonight, for your protection. Wouldn’t want a lady to go around without a proper escort.”
“Oh, of course not, that makes total sense. I guess I’ll hold off on that restraining order for now, then.”
He snorts and nudges the petty thief with the steel-tipped toe of his boot. “Nah, this really was mostly chance. I came to talk with you ‘bout Red.”
Karen finally, belatedly, feels the first flutters of anxiety ignite within her, and it's ridiculous that this, of all things, is what triggers it. “Daredevil?”
“That’s the one.”
She jams her can of mace back in her jacket pocket and crosses her arms. “Why would I care about Daredevil? At all? He has absolutely nothing to do with me.”
Frank turns to fix her with an incredulous look. “Really? That's what you're goin' with?”
“Yes.” Karen nods, trying not to fidget or purse her lips. “Yes, it is.”
He snorts again, shakes his head disbelievingly and looks into the distance for a moment, mouthing something to himself before sighing deeply and meeting her eyes once more. “And how do you feel about your former employer and boyfriend, huh? A certain mister Matthew 'Daredevil' Murdock?”
She flushes angrily. “We decided to not label our relationship.” After an extended glare the penny drops. Loudly. “Wait, Matt's not— you— what are you even talking about—”
“I can tell you know, and now you know I know, so let's cut the bullshit and move this right along,” he interrupts, supremely unimpressed.
“What— you recognized him? In the courtroom? During your very important, critical trial?"
Frank lifts his eyebrows. “Same voice, body type, posture, way of arguing, that chip on his shoulder... I may not be the sharpest tool in the box but I'm not a complete imbecile, ma'am.” He pauses a beat before adding, in very poor taste, “Don't happen to be blind as a bat, neither.”
Karen sputters. He ducks his head and grins, an expression which seems oddly boyish on his face. Maybe because it makes her see Frank rather than the mass-murdering psycho Punisher. Just Frank, the man who took his shitty diner coffee black and thanked the waitress with genuine charm when she checked in on them, the man who played a CD of a stupid song in her car when she'd been held hostage and on her way to her own back-alley execution so she'd know he was there to help her, the man she knows will be nothing but honest to her.
Even if he omits a few little things at times. Like imminent diner gunfights for which she serves as bait.
For the most part, though, she's... not that angry at him any more. The bulk of it just gone, the grudge worn away like a stone eroded by water, all rounded edges even though the hurt is still there, as if when she'd screamed that ultimatum at him it had ripped something out with it and there's an aching hollow left sitting empty in her chest, letting in a draft which whistles in her glass-flute bones. She's always been so breakable, somehow. And yet here she is. Unbroken.
What a fucking mystery.
“Fine then,” she says. She uncrosses her arms. Recrosses them. Thinks of ways to get this encounter over with. “What about Matt?”
“You heard from him lately?”
She waits to see if anything else is forthcoming, but that seems to actually be it. “No,” she says, cautiously. “We, uh, haven't been... talking.” She'd sent an email to Foggy, after Matt told her, comprised of a single sentence: I know about Matt. Vague enough not to incriminate anyone over an unsecured line, because that's what she has to worry about in her correspondence now, apparently.
Foggy had written back a week later at two in the morning: I'm sorry. Nothing else.
And that was that.
Frank's face hardens into something just short of a scowl, grave and closed-off. “Right,” he says, and he starts angling away, making as if to stride off into the dark and gloomy shadows of his tragic crusade without so much as an explanation or a by-your-leave.
“Hey,” she snaps, and without thinking she's stepped forward and reached up to grab his shoulder. The thick leather is cold and a little gritty under her hand. She digs her nails in. “No, you can't go without a little elaboration, here. What's going on?” She swallows as something occurs to her, her throat tightening. “Is... Matt's okay, right?”
Frank relents, shifting back onto his heels and turning towards her. He's always faced her squarely, eye-to-eye, so that they could regard each other as equals. Usually she appreciates it but right now his forthright seriousness fills her with foreboding.
“He's been reckless,” Frank says, and Karen blinks but holds her peace, sensing him taking in a breath, ordering his thoughts. “Been putting himself in unnecessary danger, takin' more'n more risks. Pushing himself. He's out every night and most days, too. Showin' up in, in the broad damn daylight like he's got nothing to lose. Probably you've seen all the reports of his activity, people've been goin' wild.” She nods. She's in the news industry; of course she's seen. “I don't think he's taking care of himself. Eating, sleeping.” And now Frank flicks his eyes away from hers, averting his vaguely troubled gaze as though focused on a twinge of pain. “Thing is, I've seen this before. He keeps this up, he's. He's gonna get himself killed.”
The silence swells, blocking up the alleyway more solidly than the nighttime shadows ever could.
She hears Frank inhale, air hissing through clenched teeth as he reaches up to rub the back of his head, chin dipping down. She can feel her pulse in her neck, fluttering like it wants to burst free in a flurry of vermilion butterfly wings. She realizes she's lifted her hand to her throat and curls it into a fist, pressing it to her chest as though she can push it through her rib cage, take her rabbit-swift heart in hand, and squeeze it into a more sedate and even beat.
“Are you saying he's suicidal?” she asks, steadily, but very, very softly.
Frank huffs and throws his head back, brusquely swinging his arm out in a throwing-away, hell-if-I-know gesture.
Karen holds the possibility in her mind, turning it this way and that as though to admire the facets of a cut gem, and nods as she lets it sink in, not in acceptance, but in consideration. “All right,” she says, calm and detached. “All right. I'm calling him.”
“Right now? Here?” Frank says, but she's already fishing her phone from her purse and walking deeper into the alley. He trails behind as she punches in the number, holds it to her ear like hope being nurtured.
“He's not gonna answer,” Frank is saying, ever the pessimist, but she can't hear him over the automated voice telling her that the number she's dialed no longer exists. She hangs up halfway through, numb. Double checks to make sure she hasn't made a mistake.
“What?” Frank asks. She shakes her head and calls Foggy.
It rings for what seems like forever before it's picked up, a fumbling sound giving way to an exhausted, half-yawned "Yeah? I mean, hello, Nelson here."
She stops holding her breath, releasing it in a shaky rush, right into the microphone. “Foggy, hi," she says, and thinks that it doesn't even sound like there are tears in her eyes.
"Wh— Karen! It's past my bedtime. I mean, not that I'm not happy you called. I mean— fancy hearing from you! How are you?" He waits a moment, and Karen laughs a little, but doesn't know what to say. "Karen?" he asks hesitantly, sounding much more awake and aware, though no less awkward. "You okay there?"
“Yeah,” she says quickly. “Yeah, I'm fine. Just... have you heard from Matt? Lately?”
"No," Foggy says. There's another uncomfortably long moment. "Should I have?"
“Uh, I can't seem to reach him. His usual number's, well, canceled?”
"I have his secret emergency untraceable burner number," Foggy says, in his lawer-like, I-now-have-a-task-and-can-therefore-get-shit-done tone. "Wait a second, okay? I'm going to put you on hold."
“'Kay,” Karen whispers, and he's gone.
Frank shifts behind her and she turns to look at him. He's meeting her eyes again, but she can't read what's in them. The silence presses in, stifling. Her fingers creak around her phone, stiff. Cars honk in the distance and the mugger at the mouth of the alley groans but subsides again, stays down.
"He's not answering his super-secret cell," Foggy says the second he returns, abrupt and no-nonsense and with worry so palpable Karen can feel it prickling through the speakers. "I tried like five times and he's definitely ignoring me or he's maybe dead. Oh god, is he dead? Karen? Please tell me he's not dead before I start hyperventilating in your ear or have a panic attack or something equally ugly for everyone involved. Please."
“He's not dead, Foggy.”
Foggy mutters something like Oh thank god and drops the phone, judging by the noise. He immediately gets it back up to his face and demands, "But...?"
“He might be soon.”
This time he swears and there's a crash, as though he's walked into a coffee table, followed by some more vitriolic, heartfelt cursing. After a few enraged seconds of heavy breathing he returns to say, "Okay, I'm calm. I'm calm."
Karen continues, “I talked with Frank—”
"I take it back, I am so not calm again—”
“—and he says Matt's been acting... rash.”
Frank gives her a grim yet dubious look just short of outright disapproval.
Foggy snorts mirthlessly. "Yeah, what else is new?"
“Suicidal tendencies,” Karen states.
There is dead quiet. After an apparent eternity Foggy says, very carefully and inadequately, "Ah."
Then in a tone which brooks no dispute he adds, "I am coming over right now. Where are you?"
“A random alleyway,” Karen says.
"Okay, well, I'm coming over to your apartment. Meet me there. Address?"
“Frank is sitting in on any Matt-related meetings we're having, and that's non-negotiable,” Karen warns, fixing Frank with a meaningful glare. “He's the one who brought this to me and he's going to help fix it."
Frank seems a little perplexed, his head lowered as he glanced up sharply from under a furrowed brow, but he's not scoffing at her so she'll take it as a win.
"Yeah, the Punisher, whatever, no big deal. I'll freak out later. Definitely freaking out. But later. Again: address?"
She's overcome by a surge of uncomplicated, grateful affection for Foggy, the first real friend she ever made in this godforsaken city and the best, and finds herself blinking back tears once more for an entirely different reason than that of before. She gives him the address.
Foggy's pacing around outside her building by the time they make it.
“You took an actual taxi?” she asks as she jogs up to him.
“Yeah, well, cushy job, money to burn, emergency Matt intervention to stage—” He's shrugging when Frank suddenly melts out of the shadows behind Karen, and Foggy turns a flinch of surprise into an entirely unconvincing stretch and yawn. “Boy, it's late,” he says to Frank, who makes no response other than a cold, blank stare. Foggy chuckles nervously and tries to signal Karen for help using only his very worried eyebrows.
“Be nice,” she admonishes, shoving Frank's shoulder. She might as well have shoved a brick wall for all she moves him, but he sighs in acquiescence and makes a show of looking aimlessly away as though minding his own business and being utterly non-murdery.
"Thank you," Foggy whisper-shouts, none too subtly. She resists the urge to bury her face in her hands and instead leads them inside and up the stairs. They fall into line like a pair of baby ducks, Frank taking the rear like a particularly silent, purposeful duckling with a tragic backstory and a lot of firepower hidden about his person, and Foggy like a more pacifistic, pudgy duckling who's extremely suspicious of the one behind him.
Karen fumbles her key into the lock, turns it, and is swinging open her door when she's abruptly yanked back into the hallway and thrown down by Frank, who sweeps forward into a roll which ends with him ducked behind her couch inside, having conjured some sort of freaking high powered rifle and trained it over the couch's backrest at what must be the armchair opposite. She can just see him through the gap, hunkered down on her stomach as she is on the grungy carpet. Beside her Foggy's barely had time to startle, swallow an epithet, and belatedly retreat to the wall off to the side of the door where he slides down and covers his head. They're both tense in anticipation of violence, of some sort of gunfight, ready for bullets to whiz past or possibly into them, when Frank suddenly relaxes out of his stance, straightening up with an earnest, irritated, “What the fuck, Red?”
“Hi, Frank,” Matt replies from inside Karen's apartment. From the armchair Frank had until a second ago been targeting.
Foggy lets out a gasp and climbs unsteadily to his feet with the aid of the wall, offering a hand to help Karen up as well. She accepts it, feeling shaky and increasingly annoyed.
“He is so gosh darn infuriating,” Foggy says sagely, as though agreeing with something Karen had said. It must have shown in her expression.
“I can hear you,” Matt calls chidingly, nearly in a sing-song.
“Yeah, you were meant to,” Foggy yells back, almost, but not quite, vindictively. He's too inherently good-natured to really pull it off when he doesn't mean it. Or when his empathy and the burning responsibility he has to charge in and make things better with his loved ones isn't throttling him.
Karen pulls him by his sleeve into the apartment after her and shuts the door. She waits until she's kicked off her heels, set down her bag, and hung her jacket before she steels herself to glance at the shadowy figure lounging in her armchair. He's fully suited, the eyepieces the only points of light from the corner of the room, glinting in the dark, and he seems like he's collapsed into the cushions, limbs spread wide and limp as though in exhaustion. The way he's hooked one ankle over the opposite knee does nothing to diminish the effect, at least in her eyes. His lower face is the only skin exposed, and he's noticeably pale even in the dimness, his five-o'clock shadow scruffier than usual, verging more on an actual beard. His cheekbones stand out too sharply against his skin, though not so sharply as his thin, razor-edged smirk.
Foggy finishes putting up his own jacket and then shuffles to her side to stare at Matt as well, at a loss. Frank is stowing his gun back under his coat, which occupies his attention for another few seconds before he, too, has nothing more to do, and looks from Matt to Karen, expectant. She stays frozen at the edge of the entryway until Foggy clears his throat.
“So, uh, Matt,” he starts haltingly. “Do you know why you're here today? Night? Tonight?”
Matt tilts his head to the side, a mockery of dutiful thoughtfulness. The stubby, aggressive silhouettes of his horns stand out, one just brushed by the low shaft of light from the living room window. The probably-unlocked window attached to the fire escape, which solves one mystery. “Well, I happened to hear you guys talking and supposed that I'd drop by, seeing as it concerned me. It wouldn't be an intervention without the self-destructive individual in question in attendance. Would it?” His light baritone is soft and measured, pitched low and undisguised, piercingly familiar but jarringly incongruous, issuing as it is from below the Devil's mask.
“So, what, you followed us on the rooftops and then broke in? ” Karen says, and she feels unwarranted in her defensiveness but can't seem to help bursting with it, scared and frustrated and furious for no real reason. Yet.
“You could've just answered my calls, dude,” Foggy says incredulously, unconsciously catching on to Karen's distress.
Matt frowns a little, not quite abashed but maybe a little more cognizant of his ridiculous, impulsive, irrational decision-making. God give her strength. “I thought this would be easier.”
“What?” Foggy asks. “Telling us you're fine and to fuck off in person?”
Frank has settled against the couch, his hip hitched onto the backrest and his arms folded, silently and somewhat scornfully observing the proceedings. He snorts when Foggy swears, possibly impressed, or just in general approval. Matt cocks his head at the sound, angling his ear towards Frank in a little clockwork twitch before leveling out and facing Foggy squarely again. He's not smirking anymore.
“Basically,” he says, “yes.”
Foggy sucks in a long, deep breath, his chest gradually puffing out like a balloon reaching its capacity, then lets it out, blowing it through his lips with a thin wheezing sound, deflating. After a moment of utter stillness his head bobs up again and with false cheer he claps his hands together and says, “Right, well, I need a moment before I get back on this godawful vigilante-related merry-go-round of conflicting emotions. So I'm making tea. Anyone else want tea? Karen? Do you, uh, have tea for me to make?”
“Uh, yeah. By the coffeepot. Kitchen's right that way,” she says, clearing her throat and pointing. Its location was very obvious, it being catty-corner to Matt's armchair with nothing but a sort of Japanese-inspired screen half-separating it from the living room, just behind them and around the corner from where she and Foggy were standing.
“Okay then,” Foggy says brightly, and then makes himself scarce but for the occasional unexplained clamor of pots and pans crashing together. He also turns on the kitchen light, and it glows gently through the white paper screen, lighting up the flowers and koi painted on it, pink and blue and cream and orange, and making apparent the deep red of the Daredevil costume. She can also now see a bit of congealed blood smeared beneath Matt's nose, flaky and rusty in his overgrown stubble.
“Nice goin' there, Red,” Frank says sarcastically, and Karen rounds on him with a rebuke on her tongue but Matt beats her to the punch.
“Oh, like you have any room to talk, Frank. Tact isn't really one of your applicable skills, either.”
“What's that supposed to mean?”
“What do you think.” It's a statement, not a question.
Frank bristles, his jaw flexing as he grinds his teeth. “Kinda déjà vu at this point, ain't it, Red? Same old song from a broken record.”
“I didn't mean to imply that your only applicable skills lie in killing. For once I wasn't yet again criticizing your methods, however much they may differ, morally, from my own. You drew that conclusion. Unprompted.”
Foggy rattles some dishes with unnecessary noise and vigor, slamming a few cupboards.
“'Didn't mean to imply' my ass. I know what you meant, Red. Why can't you just say it to my face, huh?”
Matt plants the sole of the boot formerly propped on his knee onto the floor with a solid thump and leans forward. “I meant that neither of us can afford to make nice. We can't afford friends or family, let alone offer them the reassurance of comforting lies. I'm trying to sever ties cleanly and you're just tangling me up again in a misguided attempt to grant me help that I don't need. Just let it be, Frank.”
"Bullshit," Karen snarls. They refocus on her and she feels herself grow rather than shrink beneath their attention, meeting it like a challenge, an ocean wave rearing up against a cliff. She strides over to the side of the couch, just short of stomping. “You need help, Matt. And Frank, you're here to help, not to argue over unrelated personal issues. Do I make myself clear?”
“Crystal, ma'am,” Frank says immediately, but Matt has crouched further forward and drawn his arms around his stomach, sullen. She can see a little looseness to the body armor, around his shoulders, as though there's space between him and the stiff Kevlar, room for it to chafe. He's lost weight. Maybe muscle mass. Hell if Karen knows.
“Matt?” she repeats, stern as a schoolteacher who's caught a child cheating. She doesn't know what she'll do if he refuses to respond.
“Answer the nice intrepid reporter lady!” Foggy orders from afar.
Matt stubbornly firms his lips into a flat line.
“Really?” Frank asks.
“Let's... let's just move on,” Karen says, suddenly tired beyond measure. She slides around the coffee table and throws herself down onto the couch, tilting her head back and closing her eyes with a groan. It feels really, really nice to get off her feet. She props them onto the table, crossing them at the ankles, and wonders how much longer they all can sustain this farce.
“Are you okay?” Matt murmurs, honestly concerned, and she opens her eyes again.
“Yeah,” she says. “Just been having a hard day.”
Matt's mouth twists. “I'm sorry,” he says. “I don't... I know I'm part of the difficulty.”
“Yeah, but. You're worth it,” she tells him, half teasingly and half dead-serious.
Matt lifts one shoulder in a shrug, his mouth smiling ruefully, and Karen flaps a hand in his direction. “Just, for God's sake, take that dorky helmet off. We all know it's you under there.”
“ And you look ludicrous in it,” Foggy says, coming in with four steaming mugs, two handles held in each hand. He leaves the light in the kitchen on, his shadow walking in front of him.
“I look cool,” Matt asserts grouchily, with the air of a man who knows he's inevitably going to lose the argument.
“Leave the visual fashion judgments to the sighted, buddy,” Foggy says. He sets the tea on the stained wooden top of the battered coffee table, lays out coasters he's dug up from somewhere, and then painstakingly relocates the mugs onto the coasters. Karen doesn't even remember owning coasters.
She shifts to the right side of the couch so that he can take the left without asking, farther away from Frank. He doesn't seem to notice and makes no comment.
Matt makes an abortive movement towards his mask and then stops, chewing on his lip. “I didn't mean to stay for long.”
“Well you're here now, and this conversation is happening whether you like it or not, so get with the program,” Foggy says.
“Or you could try to leave,” Karen chimes in. “But I wouldn't recommend it.”
“'Try to leave?'”
“I am not above siccing Frank on you,” she says, and both Matt and Frank let out simultaneous huffs of reluctant laughter before just as quickly stifling them and ignoring each other's lapses with something almost akin to courtesy, or maybe a mutual truce to maintain their collective dignity.
Matt ducks his head as he unfastens the helmet and pulls it free, dropping it down beside his foot with a hollow thump, surprisingly light. His hair's an absolute wreck and there's a line of bruising along the tops of his cheeks and over his nose, where the edge of the mask must have dug in during a blow to the face, and beneath a brow knitted in consternation his eyes, dark and glazed as ever, flick aimlessly from side to side, guilelessly wide as they betray his discomfort. For some reason his health seems much worse to Karen when his whole face is exposed, like maybe, when she could only see half his face, the little signs she'd noticed such as the unkempt stubble and the pallor and the sunken cheeks could've been a trick of the light, or just a trick, even; maybe he'd only looked different because he'd looked like Daredevil, and not like Matt. But it's irrefutable now. He looks fucking awful either way, no if's and's or but's about it.
Matt's head tilts towards them a bit, and the corner of his mouth curls up, sour and self-deprecating. Of course he can tell what their reactions were to his appearance; or at least, hers and Foggy's. Frank is still standing and facing in the opposite direction entirely. Eyes on the door.
“So,” Matt says. “What do you want to talk about?”
Karen opens her mouth. Closes it again because how the hell do you broach a subject like this. She shares a glance with Foggy and by that time Frank's decided that they're taking too long.
“Oh, I dunno, Red. How 'bout the fact that you're skin and bones? Huh? Out rampaging against crime despite bein' ready to fall over flat any damn second.” He's still stationary, arms crossed, resolutely turned away. Karen can tell he's trying to sound less affected than he is.
“Watch out, Frank. I might assume you're worried about me.”
“Take this seriously, Matt,” Karen says, right as Foggy goes, “For once Castle's got a point. I'm with him on this, buddy.”
Matt raises his hands, palms out, his eyebrows raising. He still has his gloves on, along with the rest of his costume, is still sheathed in armor all the way up to his neck. It looks out of place against Karen's dingy corduroy chair cushions, humdrum normality meeting the danger-ridden outré, the contrast verging on the surreal. “I don't know what to say to all of you, other than that this really isn't warranted. I'm okay.”
“Matt,” Karen whispers, “do you want to die?”
Everyone seems to stop breathing, tension flowing into the room like water flooding a closed compartment. The prospect of drowning in it hangs heavy between them.
Matt slowly shakes his head in negation. “I—” he pauses, clears his throat. “Of course not.”
“Then,” she says, and she's crying again, why the fuck is she always crying, whenever she's sad or angry her eyes just start streaming like leaky faucets, “why aren't you taking care of yourself? Why won't you... just let us help you? ”
“Karen,” Matt begins, and he sounds unbearably gentle, and she just knows he's going to say something patronizingly false in reassurance, and she cuts him off mercilessly, her voice a low, uneven growl.
“Don't try and sugarcoat your lack of self-worth. Don't give me any of your fucking excuses. You're a shitty liar, Matt, and we all know the truth now. I want an explanation . I want to know what's really going on.”
Matt is blinking rapidly, his eyes rolling and downcast, his expression otherwise shuttered. “I'm just...” He raises his head again, gaze roving sightlessly over their positions, and then he smiles, a shadowed, shallow thing, one shoulder hunching in a loose half-shrug as though that will help convince them of his blitheness though he can's seem to speak at a normal volume, unable to trust his voice. “I just need to keep myself busy for now. I'm fine.”
“Really?” Foggy asks, sounding choked-up. Bereft.
Matt angles his head in Foggy's direction, that unbelievably terrible smile still fixed on his face. “Really,” he says.
Karen becomes aware of Frank's breathing before he bursts into motion, his lungs heaving like a bellows, perceptibly altering the air of the room like a burgeoning storm does atmospheric pressure. He's around the couch and in front of Matt before she can formulate a way to defuse the situation, and Matt's already risen to his feet to meet him. Within the space of a second they're chest-to-chest and Frank has clamped his hands over Matt's shoulders, Matt responding by lunging his hands towards Frank's throat and holding himself back at the last moment to instead clutch hard at the lapels of Frank's coat when he must register that Frank isn't quite attacking yet. Matt's calves are pushing against the armchair, every line of his body taut and vibrating with fury.
Karen and Foggy scramble to their feet and round the other side of the coffee table but know better than to try and physically intervene, and Karen, for one, is too shocked besides.
“ You lost her, ” Frank says, snarls, his face contorted into an unreadable rictus. “You're hurting. But you do not get to jus' burn yourself up and throw yourself away. You do not get to hurt the people who care about you when you have those people left to hurt. And if you're gone, they will be hurting .” At every other word he shakes Matt's shoulders for emphasis, Matt's body holding stiff against the onslaught, his hands yanking down Frank's collar so far that it's digging into the back of Frank's neck, but Matt has blanched to a sickly white, paler than Karen would have thought possible, his eyes fixed in place like a pair of smooth brown stones, his jaw grinding so hard Karen thinks she can hear his teeth creaking. He and Frank are both breathing hard, nostrils flared and chins set, their faces so close that from a different angle she might've thought they were kissing.
Frank releases him and they shove away from each other with almost more violence and abruptness than they had evinced when meeting, Frank stumbling against the coffee table hard enough to kick it several inches with a horrendous wood-on-wood screech before making it behind the couch again to pace back and forth in long, restless tiger-strides, Matt swaying back over the armchair without losing his footing and leaning over to snatch up his helmet without diverting his attention from Frank.
“Matt,” Karen says, and she realizes that she's holding tight to Foggy's hand. She doesn't know when it happened.
Matt swings his head towards them, looking feral as a trapped animal, barely keeping himself from baring his teeth, and Foggy says, “You're important, Matt. To us. You're so important.”
He tenses, twitching, and then shoves his helmet on, buckling it as he brusquely passes them to reach the living room window. He throws it open, slides out under the sash, and slams it shut again with a flowing, practiced ease and disappears into the dark city, the sound of his footsteps ringing on the fire escape lingering for far longer than he himself did.
“Oh my god,” Foggy moans, sagging. “Wow, that went so not well.”
Karen squeezes his hand and nudges him toward the couch. He plops down into it without resistance, wobbly and dejected. “Oh my god.”
“Next time will go better,” Karen says.
“Next time?” Frank asks curtly, halting his pacing for a moment.
“Next time,” Karen repeats firmly, and the moment she says it she feels the certainty of her mission in her bones, bolstering her like steel, unbending.
Frank nods, once, sharply.
“Ugh,” Foggy says. She turns to see him grimacing at the mug in his hand. “I mean, yes to what you said, but. Cold tea.”