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05/10/2022 08:55 PM 

` 001

style !! In theory, my replies will be third-person multipara, written in past tense, but I'm a full blown moron that twitches to present without warning, sometimes in the middle of a sentence if you're paying attention. Starters are a free-for-all in terms of length, and you get whatever the creativity gods offer. bantering !! I love bantering, and it's an easy, clean way to see if we mesh writing wise without all the bells and whistles of starters. I occasionally post banter calls when bored, or even prompt lists (stolen && credited) for those that are interested, even if we have a prior plot established. Always feel free to turn a banter into a full fledge plot. cater's characterization !! I lean more into the japanese version of Cater than the English, as well as his implied mental health issues. If you're expecting cringey memelord && chat speech, you've got the wrong roleplayer. trigger warning !! As stated above, this page will be exploring mental health issues && youngest child syndrome. Additionally, this page subscribes to some darker headcanons about Heartslabyul, Night Raven, && the world in general. These themes include violence, (non-graphic) gore, && abuse. the dreaded romance !! I have no intentions of shipping Cater with anyone. I would prefer platonic relationships that may or may not grow characterization, but if somehow feelings develop (which will be difficult as Cater's true personality is not something he hands out freely) then understand there must be chemistry && it will be slow burn. Trying to rush a relationship will result in a toxic mess, from a characterization perceptive, && while interesting in its own right, it will fade quickly && Cater will lose interest quickly. It should be noted that Cater is canonically bisexual / pansexual, && that will reflect in the way he's written. 


05/14/2022 02:18 PM 


Name: LoganAge: 137Height: 6'2Weight: 195 lbsBody type: AthleticPhysical Condition: OutstandingEye color: Dark BrownHair color and style: Mutton Chop/DucktailDistinguishing features: Physical imperfections/ Would most like to change:Characteristic Gestures: GruntingFamily background/ Lineiage: Unknown*Years of schooling (if any): Uknown*Special Occupational Training: Experienced Soldier, X-Man and AvengerSkills, Abilities, and Talents: He also has a wide knowledge of the body and pressure points. He is also an accomplished pilot and highly skilled in the field of espionage and covert operations.Healing Factor.Adamantium Skeleton & Retractable Claws.Enhanced Mutant Physiology.Resistance from Toxins.Telepathic Resistance.Superhuman Strength, Senses and Reflexes.Animal Empathy.Master Martial Artist.Areas of Expertise : Frontline Combat, Stealth and Espionage.*Occupation: Retired X-Man, Part Time Avenger and Part Time Teacher*Past Occupation (s): War Veteran, Lumberjack*Military experience (if any): American Civil War,  World War 1, World War 2 Eastern and Pacific Front. Vietnam War.General Personality: Cynical and Brooding.Introvert or Extrovert?: Introvert.IQ: 110Method of Handling Anger: Drinking, Smoking, MeditatingAdmiral Traits: Tenacity, Wry Humor and Commitment Negative Traits: Unforgiving, pessimistic​​​​​​ and potentially manipulative.Bad Habits/ Vices: Drinking, Smoking and Swearing.Hobbies: Drinking, Smoking, Fighting and Vinatge Cars, Motorcycles, Movies and Music.Sports: NASCAR.Traumas/ Psychological Scars from the Past: Weapon X ProgramBackstory: This Might Take Awhile lol


05/14/2022 02:18 PM 

🔥 Weeping & Gnashing 🔥

So I was looking at topics discussing Hell. (Not realizing the Lord was putting it on my heart.) and the Holy Spirit lead me to copy a small passage from that site. ‘Lord do you want me to post this?’ I don’t know I was lead to copy it.    Hoping that it was just coincidence and I was just looking up these things out of curiosity. But I was wrong. Not only he answered me, but he answered quickly. The number 13:42 came to me. So I looked up the Bible verse to it and it talks about the furnace of fire where they will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.   This scared me because I only want to share my testimonies, and talk about love and repentance. I don’t want to mention Hell. But the Lord has put on my heart that  these people squander his love and grace. I have seen some of the reasons why people reject the the Gospel’s is because they show lack of love.   And that’s true. But I am not one of them. I am not lukewarm nor a hypocrite. So this may sound harsh but I am going to be obedient. It is not my will to talk about these things. But not what I will, but what you will. Wake up people. Look at the times we are living in.    You think God sent me here just to go on a picnic? You think he is showing all these signs for nothing? You think the Lord is revealing these things just for amusement? Or to wake you up? If a bomb dropped on us tomorrow, do you think you will have time to repent?    Would you even know how to repent? Is it as easy as snapping your fingers with a simple sorry and being caught up to heaven? The scripture says; The Lord is not mocked. If a boat is sinking, wouldn’t you warn them ahead of time before the dangers? Or would you wait until it’s almost fully submerged in water.   See that I have warned you of these things, ahead of time says the Lord.    Many think that they can repent at the last second like the thief on the cross. But what they don’t understand is it was never in the thief’s plan to repent at the last second. It was only by luck and grace that he was their with Christ on the day he was crucified.   If you are reading this and fill offended, I’m sorry to say but it’s true. But your case is not with me, but with God. If don’t believe me then at least believe the signs. Out of everyone who has visit my profile none have come to the light. It’s that’s narrow. Believe me when I say; only few enter the kingdom.   People say; God knows my heart. And think they are a good person. Therefore won’t be condemned. He will just forgive them. So let’s use that analogy. Yes he will forgive. But if the Lord your God is saying repent now. For the period of grace has ceased.    Not knowing he was trying to save you. For he knows everyone’s appointed hour. But you say; ‘He can forgive me another time.’ That’s the same as saying, that Gods grace and forgiveness is on your time and not his. It’s like a slap in the face.   Think of it this way. If you had spouse who always cheated on you and defiled your marriage bed and you always forgave them to the point it became second nature. ‘Don’t worry, my Husband loves me very much. He forgives.’ And the Husband comes and says;    ‘I do forgive you. But I will not tolerate your unfaithfulness any longer.’ That’s like saying to her husband. “I’m not ready to stop cheating on you yet.” Assuming he would never divorce her. That is how people treat God. But he will spit you out of his mouth and into the fire.   The Lord has put a parable describing this that I never got to finish. But it says blessed are those who are invited to the wedding feast. Many outside will knock at the door to the kingdom but will not be able to enter. And he will say;   “Believe me! I don’t know you! Or where you came from!”   The Lord has seen your hard hearts and he is about to give you up to your desires. You can have  detestable idols that neither speak, see, nor hear. You can have them says the Lord. For no one comes to me unless the father draws them to me.   But anyway this was the passage when I felt in my spirit; ‘Copy that’ so apparently the Lord wishes to use it which reads;   The reason the Bible speaks of people being thrown into hell is that no one will willingly go there once they see what it really is. No one standing on the shore of the lake of fire jumps in. They do not choose it, and they will not want it. They have chosen sin. They have wanted sin. They do not want the punishment. When they come to the shore of this fiery lake, they must be thrown in. And then I believe the Lord commented on this, and this is what he said; ‘I tell you truth, when you were alive, you were able to do as you liked; you dressed yourself and went wherever you wanted to go. But when you are buried, apart from me. You will stretch out your hands and be taken where you don’t want to go. Where there will be weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth.’   I take no pleasure in addressing this. But sense my time here is short, The Lord wishes to make this reality very clear. Hell IS a real place. So I urge you in the name of our Messiah, Yeshua. Repent and trust in the Lord for your salvation.    I feel the Lord has put on my heart to leave you with this;  “Peace be with you. Put your finger here, and look at my hands. Put your hand into the wound on my side. Don’t be faithless any longer. Believe!”   The Lord is talking about the signs! He has given you all the signs you need. Believe and truth in him. So you won’t perish. Why have you allowed the enemy to blind you and fill your heart with lies?   For the enemy only wishes to steal, kill and destroy. But Christ came so that we may have life and have it more abundantly.   “My father is always working. And so am I. You have heard the saying; the one who sees believeth, but blessed are the ones who has not seen. Yet believed. In the same way I say, lost is the one that doesn’t believe because they have not seen. But even more lost are they that believeth not, even while yet they have seen.  And the world’s sin is that it refuses to believe in me. That is why I say; 'Will you only believe if I show you a sign? For even the Pharisees bore wittiness to all these things and refused to repent. I tell you the Truth. The Pharisees of that time is more righteous then the wicked generation of these last days.Yes. Just as it is easier for a camel to enter the eye of a needle then it is for a rich man to enter the Kinhdom of Heaven, so too in the same way, it is easier for a Pharisees to enter the Kingdom of Heaven then a sinner from this wicked generation.Therefore Repent, be baptized with water and the Holy Spirit. Seek and trust in Jesus.

The Bad Batch

05/13/2022 08:30 PM 

Information Handbook

Rules:1} No Celeb/Hollywood, Wrestling, Ero, Racist, Derogatory, or Trolling profiles.2} Literacy is required.  (Typos happen, but effort is the best choice.)3} God-Modding is UNacceptable.4} Realism is practiced here.5} Alternate Universe/Alternate Reality and Crossovers are welcome within reason.6} OCs are acceptable within reason.7} Other characters will be frequently included as seen fit, and the same is said for included characters by collaborators.8} 21+ accepted, but it CANNOT be the main focus of the storyline.  Balance is key.  Character romance ONLY.9} Length of messages will vary depending upon the present moment in the storyline and possibly have influence from outside circumstances as well.10} Do NOT pressure into recieving faster responses or it will not happen.11} I reserve the right to accept, deny, block, and delete without explanation or warning should I feel there has been a rule broken or line of common sense/decency/courtesy crossed.  There is zero tolerance and no second chances.12} Please thoroughly read through each reply and respond appropriately to character's limitations.  If there is something misunderstood or unclear, notify and I will explain/correct.Notes of Importance:*Happily married with children.  No interest in hooking up, also will slow down responses most days.*I have zero tolerance for attention whores, either in-character or out-of-character.*Do not add unless you intend to collaborate/communicate regularly.  You add, you speak first.*Some unofficial headcanons will be included for the sake of entertainment.Thank you for taking the time to read and thank you for compliance!

Wolf Leader and Wolfpack

05/13/2022 07:30 PM 

Rules, Regulations and Guidelines

**First and foremost, I would like to make it known I am a female portraying primarily male characters.  If that offends you, you may depart.   **I am a patient and compassionate person, but do not abuse it.  That means minimal drama from real life posted here.  I would prefer to just chit-chat/write a role-play.  However, I will be an ear to listen if you need it once we have become comfortable with one another.   **Character romance only as long as it is discussed first.  I am happily married with children so I am not interested.   **If you have an issue with my style of role-play or do not approve, again, you are welcome to leave.  If you simply cannot keep pace, either work harder or find someone else as simple minded as yourself.   Rules:   1] No Real Life, Wrestling, Celebrity, Hollywood, Smut, Illiterate, One-Liner, or Single Paragraph.  I do not participate in Furry, which includes Anthro, Bestiality and the like.  Please no clingy/needy/desperate characters.  No overpowered or overly used character types.  If they are canon, fine.  If they are OC, you will need to impress me with a balanced backstory, personality and no over-powered skills.  Again, canon powers are fine, as are the backstories and personality, but your OC does not need to fall into the status quoe.   2] Literacy is required, but perfection is not.  Give the absolute maximum effort you can in regards to Spelling, Grammar, Punctuation, Proper Sentences and Multiple Paragraphs.  Details preferred.  Again, mistakes can be made and will be forgiven, as I will probably perform them myself and ask for forgiveness for the rare typing error.   3] God-Modding unacceptable!  Laws of physics apply as well.  My characters may be quite skilled, but they can still bleed and suffer the effects of gravity.  Keep it as natural and realistic as possible in conjunction with the verse.   4] Crossovers are welcome, but I am going to be strict.  Generally speaking, anything military or space based will likely compute. (IE: The Halo or Star Trek franchises are compatible.  Mickey Mouse is not.)  If you cannot figure out the difference, you have no business attempting to contact me.   5] Characters will be used frequently together unless otherwise discussed.  Other members of the 104th Battalion, Jedi Order and Sith Order will also be used when the path of the plot calls upon it.   6] Mature (18+, 21+, NSFW, Drugs, Alcohol, Violence) is acceptable, as long as we discuss the extent of it and we keep things balanced.  This includes gore and fighting.  There are more things to a good story besides conflict.  Real life is very similar.   7] If you have an issue with my writing style or any role-play, let me know.  I will do the best I can to compromise as long as it is within reason.  In other words, do not complain because I write too advanced for you.  I am still improving on that myself, but I will never downgrade.   Other rules may come later.  If there is something you have questions on, ask.  I will make every effort to answer.

Beautiful Force

05/13/2022 07:21 PM 

Code of Conduct

!!!!No Ero, Celeb/Hollywood, Wrestling, One-Liner, Semi, or One Paragraph!!!!1) Grammar, punctuation, spelling and literacy are a priority.  While spelling errors happen to even myself, try the best you can.  Everything else, mistakes may be made, as no one is perfect, but again, try the best possible.  Shorthand and text is not welcome and will not be tolerated, unless in Out-of-Character chat.  If I cannot understand what you are trying to say, I will not respond.   2) Length of replies may vary.  Try to make them as long and detailed as possible and with as much effort as you can.  I will do the same, as I find roleplay to be boring if there is no depth to the storyline or plot.   3) Mature and erotic roleplay is welcome, though there are limitations and discussion is required first.  Lust and sex are natural and occur in all life.  Roleplay, however, cannot be entirely made up of adult situations.  Try to put in some variety.   4) No God-Modding.  This character is not mine by creation, but I have chosen to portray them for a reason.  You have your characters to portray, and this one is mine.  DO NOT CROSS THAT LINE!!   5) Fights and drama can be entertaining and add some spice to the plot.  However, a massive amount will not be allowed or tolerated. Balance is the key to a successful and enjoyable roleplay.   6) Crossovers and the like are acceptable, but only if the verses are compatible and have an actual chance of occurring.   7) Other rules may appear, but those can be discussed during the same discussion of roleplay and storyline.   Thank you for taking the time to read this and thank you for complying.


05/13/2022 05:25 PM 

Your Olfactory Bulb Has a Direct Route to Your Limbic System

The fog here is thick, until you step into it.  The storm rages until you get to its eye.  I wish this same principle could be said of me, too.  But like a gas giant, you could slip right through me with                         the smallest amount of pressure.There is no calming sense of self at the core.Gravity does not apply to me.There’s a boat on the lake cutting through the fog.  And then nothing.                                                        ­                                    More waves.                                                          ­            More birds.                The fog covers it all up again.  The sun slinks and the tide comes in, or is it out?  Does it matter?  The moon controls it in some way—the push, the pull of the waves.At least the lake looks blue today,                           looks green today.The geese are in the water now.  The families are packing up.                               The ice cream shop is closing.And I do not remember if I was ever here with you.                                  This, of course, is a collective you.  Could mean you, my reader,                                               could mean one specific person,                                               or two                                                             ­       or three                                                                ­                          or four;could be whoever I'm thinking of when I reread this to myself.  That’s the funny thing about the litany of loss.                                             It all starts to congeal.  Waves crash against the rock.  Starts to chip away, create something new.                                                      That’s what memory does.It’s not permanent.  It’s malleable.  Flexible.        Bendable.        Moldable.  It smells like lakewater.  Like                                                  fish and sand and mud and                            gulls and rocks and shells and     algae and fog—thick, thick fog.  Smell is supposed to be one of the biggest memory triggers, and yet                                       I cannot place a single memory of you here.                                                    And that’s mildly crushing.  So I would take you here:                                              to where I wish the air was                                                       saliter and less earthy.                                                to where I come sometimes to think.                                                where the clouds are so thick and puffy and                                                            the setting sun makes them look like                                                                cotton candy on the Fourth of July.                                              where the sun’s reflection on the water                                                                ­      turns the green lake pink.                                                where the geese are back out of the water and                                                                                                     onto the shore.I would take you here with me.  Into a new memory.                                        Homemade.        Handmade.        DIY.


05/13/2022 05:06 PM 

here is my hand that will not harm you

Summary: It starts the day they assign him to Laura Morse. It starts as something he wants nothing to do with. And then, it becomes something more. Notes: If you've been a longtime reader of my work, you know how much I love Laura Barton. So the Hawkeye show giving us real Laura Barton history and making her a bigger part of the universe was literally the best gift I could've asked for. I knew I needed and wanted to write something with this new canon, and then a friend mentioned she needed to see Laura working at SHIELD with Clint and Natasha before becoming the Laura we first meet in Age of Ultron. And once the idea took hold I couldn't stop it, and an entirely new origin story was unfolding. I started writing this around the middle of Hawkeye, after it was revealed that Laura clearly was something more than just a farm mom, and I'm so happy I finally get to share it.      It starts the day they assign him to Laura Morse. “We’ve got a handler,” Clint announces to Natasha during their morning coffee break, throwing the folder on the table with an exasperated sigh. Natasha looks up from her caramel macchiato and raises an eyebrow, foam decorating the top of her lip. “We already have a handler. Remember? Annoying white guy who likes to make dad jokes?” “Yeah, I’m not talking about Coulson,” Clint responds, collapsing into the seat across from her. “They’re hooking us up with another SHIELD agent. Some person to be on the ground and actually help run our missions from the inside, as opposed to just getting us extraction when we’re f***ed over.” Natasha looks confused, her eyes narrowing into slits. “Wow. Where’s Fury’s confidence in Strike Team: Delta?” “You can ask him after our meeting,” Clint says, heaving out a sigh as he reaches for her drink. “Which we apparently have in ten minutes.” “Oh, well.” Natasha grabs the coffee from his hands before he can take a sip, and Clint shoves his lips into a pout as she smirks. “I guess I should really caffeinate myself.” She pointedly puts the cup against her lips, sipping lightly, and Clint groans as he slumps further down in his seat. “We don’t need a f***ing handler, Natasha! We’ve been going out in the field and doing missions for three years! I mean, you’re a damn Red Room assassin!” “My favorite qualification,” Natasha says dryly, pushing curly red hair out of her eyes. “Obviously someone does think we need one if we’re being assigned one.” “Yeah, and I’m gonna make sure they know exactly how wrong they are,” Clint informs her, crossing his arms in childish defiance. Natasha rolls her eyes, sitting forward and leveling her gaze. “Clint, I’m not exactly thrilled about this news either. But if we have a handler, we have a handler. Look on the bright side, okay? Maybe she’s hot.” Clint gives her a wary look. “Since when are you into women?” “Since you started annoying me,” Natasha shoots back with a small grin, kicking him lightly under the table. “Also, I was talking about you. You could really use a girlfriend.” “And you want my girlfriend to be a SHIELD agent I already hate?” Clint asks dubiously. “Besides, I don’t need a friend. Girl. I have you.” Natasha makes a face. “Your best friend slash SHIELD agent slash partner is not a substitute for a healthy relationship with someone who deserves to know you inside and out and give you the things you want in life as a normal human being who doesn’t shoot arrows at people,” she returns pointedly, all in one breath. Clint huffs out a sarcastic laugh. “So you’re playing matchmaker now?” “I’m just stating facts,” Natasha replies smoothly. “You didn’t hear it from me, but Debra in accounting has been looking at you lately. And I know Sarah at reception was asking me for information on the times you go to the gym…I can’t imagine she’s interested in working out.” “Ugh,” Clint mutters, trying to reach unsuccessfully for her coffee again. “It’s like these people never saw a half-attractive SHIELD agent before I got here.” “I’d wager to bet that’s true,” Natasha answers. “Have you seen Sitwell and Rumlow? They’re not exactly lookers.” Clint sighs again and looks around before he glances back down at the table, where the unopened folder is still lying between them. “I’m gonna make Laura’s life a living hell,” he declares, and Natasha snorts from the other end of the table. “Oh, I’m sure she’s counting on it.”   ***   The first time Clint meets Laura, it doesn’t exactly go well. For one thing, he’s more than aware that he’s being bitchy about this whole handler thing. He’d complained to Coulson, who had essentially ignored him and told him to take it up with Fury. He’d complained to Fury, who had read him a riot act about who exactly was in charge of the paycheck that allowed him to eat every day. He’d complained to Natasha, who endured his whining until she finally shut him up telling him that he was acting like a child and if he didn’t grow up, she’d find another agent to work with. So he grudgingly listens and pulls his act together as best he can in terms of trying not to feel too annoyed about the whole thing, but he’s also aware that he can’t hide his displeasure when he sits down in Laura’s office, even as Natasha keeps shooting him subtle looks. “Clint…Natasha. Nice to meet you,” Laura says before introducing herself. She has dark brown hair that’s tied back in a no-nonsense ponytail and even darker eyes, but her bright smile seems to light up her whole face. “And thank you for taking the time to talk with me.” Natasha smiles back and Clint manages to make his lips rise. “Nice to meet you,” he grumbles, hunkering down in his chair. Laura half-smiles and walks to her own chair, sitting down across from them. “I know you’re exactly not happy about this arrangement,” she continues. “And I know you guys are good – I’m not doubting that. I’m also not here to make you think otherwise. But I think you’ll find it helpful to have my expertise.” “Yeah?” Clint challenges before he can stop himself. “What expertise?” Laura thins her lips, inclining her head slightly. “I did my undergraduate work at Georgia Institute of Technology, where I specialized in biology. I earned my PhD under William Calvin and later joined him working on Project Gladiator, which is where SHIELD first recruited me. I trained under SHIELD to become a spy and I’m sure I could regale you with dozens of high-profile missions I’ve done in the past ten years, but I trust you’ve already read about them in the background files that you and Ms. Romanoff happened to dig up before this meeting.” She flashes a knowing smile at Clint. “Is that enough intel for you, Mr. Barton?” Clint grinds his teeth together because he can’t really refute the fact he had done his own stealth digging about the person who was expected to be their third wheel. But he also knows he can’t really refute the fact that she was good. Even if he didn’t want to admit it, she’d had more field experience than him. Sure, he was trained as a marksman and had worked at SHIELD for a decently long time, but he was good at shooting arrows — he was a spy, the kind of spy who was made to be a weapon. She was the type of spy who had experience with things like espionage and languages and codes, a kind of knowledge that seemingly rivaled Natasha’s high smarts – and that he knew he could only dream of having. “It’s enough,” he manages to get out while Natasha smiles at Laura. “I’m sorry you have to deal with this,” she says, her gaze flicking to Clint, and he makes a mental note to get her back for her words when they’re alone again. “He gets a little upset when it comes to change.” “I do not,” Clint grumbles, sighing loudly because he knows that Natasha’s words mean she wants him to start apologizing for his attitude. He doesn’t think he can make himself go that far, however much of an a**hole it makes him, so he swallows and tries to make himself look interested. “Uhm Fury said you have our first assignment.” “Yes,” Laura says with a nod, handing them both folders. “An op in Madripoor, a place that I know you’re both familiar with. Should I brief you on the specifics?” “Yes,” Natasha answers, at the same time Clint responds “no.” Natasha jabs his foot with hers and if Laura notices, she doesn’t say anything. “Very well,” Laura says, continuing on as if Clint doesn’t exist. “It’s a simple mission but it has the potential to go wrong if it goes into the wrong hands. You’re detailing people who are involved with a group known as the Tracksuit Mafia, high-level criminals who have deeper connections to AIM. The item in question that you’re trying to confiscate for us is a vintage Rolex that’s also SHIELD property.” Natasha gives her a quizzical look. “That’s all? We don’t even get to know what this watch is?” “Until someone above me deems you appropriate enough to know, yes,” Laura responds matter-of-factly. “You leave tomorrow. All the specifics should have been sent to your email. Let me know if you have any questions.” Natasha takes the folders and gets up, knowing her cue. Clint nods as well, standing and making his way to the door. Before he can get his hand on the knob, however, Laura’s voice stops him from behind. “Barton.” Clint watches Natasha continue to walk, silently cursing the fact she’s getting away so easily. He wonders if Laura’s going to privately chastise him for being so difficult but when he turns around, he sees her staring at him with kind eyes. For a moment that disappears when he blinks, he finds himself thinking that she looks less like a SHIELD agent he wants nothing to do with and more like someone he’d actually find attractive, if he ever actually considered looking for someone to date. “I just want to say that I’m excited to work with you.”   ***   Clint and Natasha leave for Madripoor the next day, and Laura sends them off with a long mission directive. “I’ll be on the ground with you the whole time,” she finishes, handing them earpieces. “I know I don’t need to tell you to watch your six, but keep an eye out for anything suspicious. I’m running some reports for extra intel and should have them for you by the time you land.” “Fabulous,” Clint mutters and as soon as they’re safely inside the quinjet, he switches his comm off. He sits down on one of the cots and sees Natasha moving out of the corner of her eye, abandoning the weapons she’s been cleaning. “You okay, Barton?” “Never better,” Clint lies, although it’s less of a lie than he means it to be. Sometimes, he wonders how he survived almost thirty years of his life without her, even though he knows how strange it sounds to admit that his soulmate is more or less a Russian assassin who could kill you with her thighs — and that was on a good day. “Care to tell me the real reason why you’re so bitter we have to work with Laura?” Natasha presses, sitting down next to him and nudging his shoulder. “She seems nice.” Clint makes a face, rubbing his lower jaw. “It’s not that she doesn’t seem nice. It’s just…I don’t like getting help. I don’t like needing help. Okay?” “Okay,” Natasha agrees gently. “But you know needing help or asking for help doesn’t exactly make you worthless. You helped me, remember?” “That was different,” Clint argues. “I saved you from a bad situation. I didn’t barge in on your life.” “Well, you kind of did, because I certainly didn’t wake up that morning thinking I was going to end up defecting to the United States with a SHIELD agent who was sent to kill me,” Natasha replies, giving him a small grin. “You know as well as anyone that sometimes you just need another person in your corner.” “Yeah,” Clint answers. “And I have you.” “And what if one day I’m not here anymore?” Natasha asks pointedly. Clint scrunches up his nose. “Yeah, I know. Death is a part of the game at SHIELD, blah blah blah.” “I’m not talking about death,” Natasha says quietly, putting a hand on his arm. “I’m talking about life. Maybe one day you won’t be a SHIELD agent anymore. Maybe I won’t either. Maybe things will happen that will change both of us. And if they do, maybe it would be nice to have someone else in your corner.” “Yeah, okay,” Clint says, heaving out a sigh. “I get it. No more sad Barton. You made your point.” Natasha smiles, shifting so that she can rest her head on his shoulder. “You know, having someone else behind us isn’t exactly what I want either,” she admits. “I’m used to working alone. I didn’t even want to be partners with you. But I think there’s a reason Fury’s doing this. It’s not that he doesn’t trust us. I think he just wants us…” She trails off. “I don’t know, Clint. We’re the best at what we do, right?” “Yeah,” he says, looking down at her head and wondering how they’ve come so far in such a short time. “We are.” “And maybe because we’re the best, we need a little more to make us even better.” “Didn’t peg you for such a sentimental sap,” Clint replies, and Natasha laughs against him. “Well. Maybe I’m just getting started. We have a long flight.”   ***   Clint is not going to admit that during his first mission with Laura, it helps to have her there. He’s not. He’s not. For one thing, she’d been damn annoying in his ear, constantly cutting in when he was trying to sort out his own thoughts, and he’d almost ripped the earpiece out and settled for ignoring her entirely. For another, he found that having Laura’s added commentary stressed him out, which caused him to stumble in a few instances where he should have had his guard up more — which consequently led to more injuries than he felt comfortable with. So, yeah. They may have gotten the stupid watch and she may have actually saved his life when she used her translation skills to alert him that he was in a line of invisible fire, but he’s not going to admit it. Natasha, however, is, especially once they get back to the safehouse and she’s pulling white gauze over her arm to stop the bleeding from a rogue knife gash. “F***ing Tracksuit…whatever the f*** they’re called,” Natasha spits out, blood seeping through the bandage. “This is probably gonna scar because that guy’s aim was so bad. It’s not even a clean cut!” “What a shame, ruining that pretty skin,” Clint returns sarcastically. “A day in the life of a spy and assassin.” Natasha glares at him and Clint knows she’s zeroing in on his bruises and the large bump hidden by his mop of blonde hair. He glances at her arm as she sits down on the small bed in the safehouse. “You good?” “Ugh.” Natasha huffs out a sigh. “I’ll be fine. You?” He shrugs, even though the motion hurts. “Nothing’s broken. Just a lot of bruises. Probably have a concussion but I won’t sleep tonight so don’t worry about me.” “I’m always worrying about you,” Natasha says tiredly. “Anyway, aren’t you going to say it?” “Say what?” Clint asks, even though he knows what she’s getting at. As it is, Natasha looks annoyed. “If Laura hadn’t been there, you would’ve been dead.” “Oh, so she’s my savior now?” Clint asks, sitting down next to her on the bed. Every inch of him hurts and he just wants to — as much as he told Natasha he wasn’t going to — go to sleep. Or at least get himself drunk enough that he can’t feel his injuries anymore, which was usually the preferred manner for taking care of his injuries. “Well, if you won’t call her that, then I will,” Natasha answers. “I like having you as a partner and I really don’t want to sign up for a new one.” “Then it’s a good thing I’m not going anywhere,” Clint replies, reaching for her gauze and wiping off some of the blood that’s creeping through. “Any ideas about why that watch is so important?” “Not really,” Natasha admits. “There’s a SHIELD logo on the back and the number 19 but other than that, it seems like a regular watch. Maybe there’s something hidden in it that we don’t know about.” “Well, maybe it’s not our problem once we get it back to SHIELD,” Clint decides, stretching out on the bed. His eyes are almost closed when he feels Natasha press down firmly on his knee, where a large bruise is forming. “Ow.” “You said you weren’t going to sleep.” “I’m not,” Clint lies, forcing his eyes open and meeting Natasha’s concerned face. She studies him for a moment, her gaze boring into his. “Good,” she says finally, pulling back. “Because Laura wants to see us.” That gets Clint to come a little more awake and he looks at her suspiciously. “What do you mean she wants to see us?” “I mean, she sent a message asking if we could call for a debrief,” Natasha says, holding out her phone, and Clint notices that even she sounds a little annoyed. “We do debriefs with Coulson, sometimes with Fury, and they take ten minutes,” he says grumpily. “I feel like sh*t. Why do we have to talk with her?” “Honestly, Clint, I don’t know. But can you just help me get this done with so we can actually rest before we figure out how we’re getting home?” He can hear the frustration in her voice and honestly can’t tell if her annoyance is directed at him or at the situation. “Sure,” he relents, heaving out a long sigh as Natasha props it up against the small side table and presses a few buttons, entering a number of codes before the words SHIELD line secure is transmitted via an annoyingly electronic voice and Laura’s face appears on the other end of the screen. “How are you doing?” she asks and despite the fact that Clint knows it has to be at least two in the morning back in New York, everything from her clothes to her voice looks and sounds way too professional. “How do you think we’re doing?” Clint asks and Laura purses her lips on the other end of the video chat. “You don't need my permission to relax for awhile. I know you’re probably tired, so I just wanted to check in. I assume everything went fine with the op and there were no complications.” “Sure, if you’re calling a few bumps and bruises fine,” Clint answers before Natasha cuts in. “Everything went fine,” she confirms, and Clint notices she doesn’t try to make a big deal about her own injury even as the blood continues to soak through her bandage. He has no idea when she became so professional and he thinks he’d feel proud if he wasn’t so frustrated with everything. “The only things that went sideways were the people who tried to get in our way. We’ll have full reports for you by the time we’re back in New York.” “Great,” says Laura, and Clint swears he catches her looking at him a little too long before her gaze flicks back over to Natasha. “I’ll let you guys rest. Thanks for your work.” “Thanks,” Clint mutters as Natasha reaches over and ends the video call. He groans and lets himself fall back on the bed. “Now can I pass out?” Natasha gives him a look and Clint closes his eyes again, knowing if she was really worried about his well-being, she’d force him to stay up. Content in the thought that Natasha probably won’t let him die somewhere with no working shower, he lets himself drift off, with Laura Morse the furthest thing from his mind.   ***   It happens not forty-eight hours after they get home, and when he’s not even close to being fully healed from Madripoor. “I have a favor to ask,” Laura starts after they’ve handled their debrief and given their notes. Clint, who has had one foot out the door, stops with his toe in the air. Carefully placing it back on the ground, he turns around and meets Laura’s face. “What did I do wrong?” Laura looks startled but before Clint can read her expression, her face smoothes out. “Nothing,” she says after the moment passes. “I was actually wondering if you wanted to get a drink after work. Strictly professional, of course. But I know you’re not a fan of me — or this arrangement — and I also know it’s hard to get to know someone when you’re working in this environment.” “What gave you the idea I wasn’t a fan of you?” Clint asks innocently. Laura sighs, running a hand through her long brown hair which today she’s decided to wear half-down. “Is this how you treated Natasha when you first got to know her?” “I –” Clint stops because no, it’s not. In every way, he’d worked as hard as humanly possible to be kind to Natasha even on the days he wanted to throw in the towel, and he knows that he’s been giving Laura the cold shoulder since day one. Natasha had called him out on his difficulty and so had everyone else in his life; he’d been ignoring it but the more that he thinks about how he’s been acting, the more his selfishness eats away at him. Because really — what had she ever done to him aside from work with him, when it might not even have been her choice to do that in the first place? Or maybe it was. Clint realizes there’s extremely little he knows about Laura or about their relationship, and that he’s been basing a lot of his displeasure on the pure annoyance of having someone else infringe on his own SHIELD achievements. “Fine,” he relents after a pause. “Let’s meet at 7. Unless you’re working late.” “Fortunately for you, Thursdays are my slow days. Except when Fury calls me in for some last-minute meeting,” Laura replies. She smiles at him, and he thinks if he looks hard enough, he can almost see something kind in her gaze. “See you at 7, Barton.”   ***   He doesn’t tell Natasha about his off-site meeting with Laura, because he knows that will only lead to her congratulating him for growing up and also ribbing him about her being potential girlfriend material. And he doesn’t want either of those things in his brain while he’s dealing with all his other thoughts. So he ducks out of work early under the guise of being tired and wanting to go home, praying she won’t ask him questions. She simply nods, tells him to take it easy with his still-healing injuries, and goes back to finishing her reports while he slips out and heads to the SHIELD lockers to change. He trades his black uniform for a plaid button-down flannel shirt and blue jeans and it’s only when he gets to the bar that he starts to feel self-conscious about putting so little effort into his looks. It’s not that he’s trying to impress anyone — least of all her — but he knows his face has seen better days thanks to their recent mission and that he could’ve at least put some gel in his messy hair, or even brought out a nicer shirt. He finds himself pushing overgrown blonde strands away from his eyes, desperately trying to tease them into something that might resemble a person who actually put thought into his appearance, as she walks through the door and makes her way towards him. Clint freezes with one hand stuck in his hair as she approaches, and his breath catches in his throat. For all that he’s lacked in making himself look decent for a night out, Laura has more than made up for it. Her brown hair, which she usually wears up to keep out of her face, has been softly styled so that it falls in neat waves down her back and over her shoulders. She’s put on just the smallest hint of makeup, the kind where you can tell someone is accentuating their natural beauty without trying to overdo it, and she’s wearing dark jeans and a blue cashmere sweater. He finds himself taken aback because even though he knows firsthand how different people could be out of the office — Natasha was all business and hard edges at work with her uniforms but when she was at home with him or out on a weekend, it was nothing but sweatpants and soft leather jackets over henley shirts — he hasn’t expected Laura to look so…well…normal. Attractive, even. “Hi,” she says when she gets close enough to be heard over the din of the lively bar chatter. Clint swallows, trying to pull himself back together. He imagines being back at SHIELD and being handed another assignment he doesn’t want to be involved in. “Hi,” he says, turning to the bar and flagging down the woman currently pouring drinks. He orders a beer for himself and before he can ask Laura what she wants, she’s pressing up against him loudly asking for her own glass of wine. “So, uh. How often does a handler ask her agents out on a date?” Clint asks as he takes his Guinness. Laura takes her white wine from his outstretched hand and hides a grin that he tries not to find endearing. “Never. And I’m not your handler, Coulson is.” She pauses to sip her wine. “Also, this isn't a date. Strictly professional, remember?” “Right. Strictly professional,” Clint echoes with a smug grin. Laura rolls her eyes, putting her glass down and sliding onto an empty barstool. “What’s your history, Barton?” “Oh, come on,” Clint says with a groan. “That’s what we’re gonna start with? I thought this whole night out was about non-work stuff.” “Everything starts with you opening up,” Laura responds, and Clint can’t help feeling like he’s suddenly in therapy. “I can’t get to know you better or talk to you about non-work things if I don’t know you.” “But you do know me,” Clint protests. “It’s all…” He gestures vaguely. “It’s all in the stuff they sent you.” “Not all of it,” Laura says evasively as if she knows that he’s trying to find a way to get out of the conversation. Clint sighs, tipping his glass back and downing a large portion of his beer. “Okay. Parents died when I was seven,” he starts when he comes up for air. “Got sent to the circus with my brother — it’s where I learned archery. When I left the circus, I got hired doing some odd jobs for other thieves and assassins. Made a name for myself in the underground crime world, even though I wasn’t really trying to. Fury found me, took me in, and trained me at SHIELD. Five years ago, he sent me to Russia and I met Natasha. Brought her in to deflect. Those enough cliff notes for you?” He expects Laura to push back and make a sarcastic comment but she nods, looking content. “Yes,” she says with a small shrug and when silence starts to grow between them, Clint snorts out a laugh. “Oh, come on. You’re going to make me spill my guts and you’re not gonna return the favor?” Laura smiles thinly, as if she’s expected or even anticipated his answer. “Fine,” she says after a moment, taking her own long sip of wine. “Grew up in Missouri — my parents ran and still run a farm. That’s a pretty standard upbringing for someone who lives in the Midwest. I got really into espionage at a young age and told my family I wanted to be an FBI agent, which they weren’t exactly thrilled about. Went to Georgetown and studied law, then came to Washington and got hired by Alexander Pierce to head up parts of SHIELD.” Her lips quirk upward. “And until now, you’re the most difficult person I’ve had to deal with.” “Thanks for the compliment,” Clint mutters, but he can’t stop the smile he knows is scraping over his lips. He doesn't want to like Laura — he doesn’t, he doesn’t — but now that they’re out of work, he’s finding it hard to ignore her easy attitude and the way she makes him feel so comfortable. “Do you always insult authority like this?” Laura asks, hiding a laugh. Clint narrows his eyes. “Only when they annoy me,” he shoots back. Laura hums under her breath and reaches for her wine again. “How long have you known Natasha?” “Uh.” Clint stops, partially because he’s surprised at the sudden change in conversation. “I told you. Five years.” “No,” Laura says, her tone similar to the one she uses when she directs Clint in the field. “How long have you known Natasha?” He grits his teeth and downs the rest of his beer, putting the empty glass back on the bar. “Three years, if I’m being generous,” he admits slowly. “The progress was slow. We really only started trusting each other when she ended her conditioning and therapy treatments. You know, for…” “I know,” Laura says quietly, sounding a little sad. Clint grunts under his breath. “Yeah, right. Course you do. Anyway, uh…I just kept working at it, you know? I knew there was a person in there, so I just tried to take it slow and show her that I believed in her, even if she did bad things. And look at us now.” “Look at you now,” Laura echoes, brushing her thumb over the rim of her wine glass. “Clint, can you tell me the real reason you’re having such a hard time working with someone else? Is it because there’s something going on with Natasha?” “Is it — what?” Clint’s almost glad he doesn’t have a drink anymore because if he did, he thinks that he definitely would’ve felt bad spitting it out all over Laura’s face and possibly her very nice, dry clean only sweater. “No, god. I mean…no. Natasha is — I’m —” He stops, collecting himself, and takes a deep breath. “I care about her more than anyone else in the world,” he continues carefully. “But it’s not like I’m in love with her or anything.” Laura nods, and Clint can tell that while she might not believe him, she’s also not going to egg him on the way she might if they were at work together. “Okay,” she says in the same soft voice, as if she maybe has finally realized that there’s no reason he’s been an a**hole to her. He watches her finish her drink and something about the way she’s holding her wine glass compels him to put his hand forward, touching her arm lightly. “Hey,” he says with a small smile. “Uh, you know…it’s kind of loud in here and since we’re definitely on this non-date, very professional night out, do you wanna maybe take a walk? I’ve heard the park is really quiet at night.” Laura looks up at him in surprise but smiles slightly, nodding as she slides off the bench. Clint follows her out of the bar, trying to ignore the small flutterings in his stomach, blaming the feeling on his drink.   ***   He walks her to her subway stop a few hours later because he knows it’s the right thing to do and also because he can’t forget her face after he’d basically confirmed that he had no reason for treating her like sh*t. But as much as he doesn’t want to admit it, it’s also because he’s realizing he actually enjoys spending time with her when they’re not talking about SHIELD or missions or whether or not he can ever shut up when they’re on comms. “Thanks for asking me out,” Clint says when they reach the 14th Street station, and he realizes too late how his words have come out. “I mean — sh*t.” “Don’t worry,” Laura answers lightly. “I know what you meant. Strictly professional.” She smiles and lowers her eyes, as if she’s not sure she wants to see his face when she says her next words. “I had fun, though.” “Yeah,” Clint agrees, feeling like he can answer honestly. “Me too. I guess I should get out more often.” He gestures in the direction of the large AMC on the corner. “Natasha and I don’t really do much aside from watch movies on our days off.” “Well, maybe you should,” Laura suggests. “I learned the hard way that it’s not great to make work the only thing in your life.” “Yeah,” Clint repeats, scuffing his foot against the ground. He feels awkward, like he should do or say something aside from just wishing her a good night, but she’s his work partner — a superior, technically — and he really shouldn’t even be entertaining the thought of liking her like this, let alone like this. But somehow, he finds himself leaning in at the same time she does, and their mouths catch just quickly enough for their lips to touch. They both pull away instantly, as if embarrassed about their mutual mistake, and then Laura speaks softly. “Is this wrong?” she asks, sounding hesitant. Clint closes his eyes and thinks, really thinks, before he opens his mouth. “Yes,” he decides, moving closer and leaning down again to meet her lips, this time purposefully. “But I’m going to do it anyway.”   ***   Clint doesn’t tell anyone about the kiss. He certainly doesn’t tell Coulson. He definitely doesn’t tell Fury. He absolutely doesn’t tell Natasha. He also doesn’t plan to see Laura again outside of work, because he doesn’t think he can. Even though there’s a part of his gut that tells him the kiss wasn’t a mistake, he knows that it was. And Clint isn’t about to f*** over the only two good things in his life — SHIELD and Natasha — for a woman that, until two days ago, he could have cared less about. Plus, he’s honestly afraid that if he does see her again he’ll really start to fall for her, and then all bets will be off. But Laura messages him one afternoon asking if he wants to get coffee during an afternoon break, and since he’s been up until 4 a.m. working on a long report, he answers without thinking. It’s only when they’re standing at the truck in front of the building that he starts looking around, feeling anxious, like he’s going to get caught. “Will you stop?” Laura mutters under her breath. “You’re making a big deal about nothing.” “I feel like a kid sneaking out,” Clint whines as they move forward in line. “Can’t you just humor me?” “No,” Laura answers, and he’s admittedly shocked she’s being so blunt with him. “We’re literally two co-workers getting coffee.” “Yeah, and everyone knows that we don’t like each other. So this feels weird.” Laura rolls her eyes. “I was going to pay for your drink given that the bags under your eyes look like they have bags,” she quips. “But if you keep annoying me —” “Sorry,” Clint apologizes with a wince as Laura puts a five-dollar bill on the counter, grabbing two blue and white plastic cups in return. “Look,” she says as they turn to leave. “As long as you keep being mean to me at briefings, no one will suspect this.” “Yeah,” Clint agrees, stopping a few feet from the entrance of the building. “What is this, by the way? I mean…do you even know what this is?” “Do you?” Laura counters and Clint sighs, bowing his head in resignation. “No,” he says after a moment, meeting her gaze again. “But I want to keep doing it. I mean, if you do.” Laura looks a little surprised at his words but nods slowly. “I do,” she acknowledges, walking back inside before he can answer, leaving him and his feelings on the street. In some sense, Clint feels like he’s living a double life — something that makes him laugh since he knows his job is basically that of a secret agent. During meetings, he acts appropriately annoyed with Laura and when he’s with Natasha, he complains about the things that he wishes Laura would shut up about. But when he’s alone, he lets himself daydream of the next time he can see Laura outside of work and he finds himself making an internal list of things that he wants to know, like her favorite food and what she loved about growing up in Missouri. He knows it’s not exactly forbidden to feel this way but the whole thing still feels weird, and so even though he wants to keep seeing her, he tries to keep things as quiet as possible. Most of their interactions are either during quick lunch breaks or after work, late enough that no one would suspect him if he goes out; when they do go out Clint never asks to come over to her apartment and she never pushes for going over to his, even if it’s to do something mundane like watch a movie. And then they get sent to Zagreb. In truth, it takes a lot for Clint to worry about any mission. The fact that he could die at any moment is always somewhere in his mind, but he’s learned to push it back far enough that he doesn’t enter situations with anxiety anymore. It’s the one thing he knows Fury both loves and hates about him – he liked to throw himself recklessly into any situation because he truly didn’t care. It wasn’t like anyone had cared about him anyway. When he started working with Natasha, that had all changed. And in turn, he’d changed. He not only felt more confident with her by his side, but he also felt more supported going into the field which made him a little less inclined to throw himself into fire — because finally, someone else did care whether or not he lived or died. So he’s not really worried when Laura tells him that he should be on his guard more than usual. But he also finds himself listening to her more than he normally would, half out of the feelings he’s still trying to hide and half out of a feeling that he should be more than a little vigilant. “Can you decode this for me?” Clint asks as he squints at the writing on a door in the abandoned warehouse they’re investigating. “I need to make sure it won’t kill me when I open it.” “One sec,” Laura answers curtly, every bit the professional agent she is when she’s on the ground responsible for their safety. He listens to her fingers typing cleanly and waits for her to speak again. “Send a photo, I’ll give it a look.” Clint raises his wrist and uses his Stark tech watch to scan the letters decorating the front of the door. He knows that he could just ask Laura to open it with her resources or have Natasha try to blast it open, or even pry it open with her weapons. But, well — better safe than sorry, and it’s not like they were in a hurry to get anywhere. For once, they didn’t have people on their trail or anyone hunting for them. Recon missions could be the most boring, but they could also be the most dangerous, and those two reasons were why they always went to Strike Team: Delta before anyone else. “Looks like nothing,” Laura confirms after a few seconds of silence. “Should be good if you can get it open. If not –” “I can get it open,” Clint breaks in, putting his hand on the knob and twisting. He half expects to walk back his confidence, but the door opens easily. And before Clint can take two steps, he feels like he’s suffocating, drowning under an invisible weight he can’t see or smell. He manages to gasp out Laura’s name before his legs give out underneath him and his knees smack against the floor as he falls, his head meeting the hard pavement in a rush of pain. “Sh*t — f*** — Barton!” He can hear Laura in his ear, though her voice sounds far away even though she also sounds like she’s screaming. “Clint, talk to me! Answer me!” He wants to respond. He wants to ask her what’s going on, to get help, to get Natasha. But everything hurts and he can’t breathe and everything hurts — His last two thoughts before he passes out are that he hopes he hasn’t killed Laura’s chances of ever working in SHIELD again by being too dumb to keep a relationship professional, and that of all the ways to die, this is definitely not how he thought he’d go.   ***   When Clint opens his eyes again, he immediately regrets it. The light is too bright and the air is too cold, and opening his eyes makes him realize just how much pain he’s in — pain he assumes he avoided while he was asleep, though he has no idea how long that might’ve been. He wonders if he’s dead, but when he turns his head and sees Natasha, he figures he has to be alive because it would probably be really bad if both of them were stuck in some afterlife together. Fury would probably flip his lid. “Clint.” Natasha stands quickly when he moves, putting a hand on his arm as she leans over. “Are you okay? Can you talk?” For the first time since waking up, he notices an oxygen mask around his mouth and nose. He raises his hand to pull it off but Natasha carefully guides it back, keeping their eyes locked. “You can remove it to talk but keep it on when you’re not talking. You still need it, okay?” Clint nods, because while he’d normally push back against being taken care of like this, everything from their mission is slowly coming back to him and he has a feeling there’s a reason he’s laid up in what he realizes is a hospital bed. “What…what happened?” Natasha takes a deep breath and exhales slowly, a movement that looks like it hurts. “The door that you opened had been sealed to lock in a poisonous gas meant to kill trespassers. Did Laura give you any intel about it?” Clint tries to remember the events leading up to the moment he collapsed, despite everything being fuzzy. “There was a code or some writing on the outside. I asked her…she looked at the photo I sent and said it wasn’t anything dangerous, so I opened it.” “Well, maybe she read something wrong,” Natasha says, squeezing his hand. “In any case, you’re okay. The gas did a number on your lungs but luckily, I got you out quick enough that x-rays showed no lasting damage.” “At what cost?” Clint asks hoarsely, squinting at the cut on her face and the way she’s favoring her right arm. Natasha seems to understand what he means, shrugging and wincing at the reaction. “It’s fine. I heal quickly…dead partners don’t.” Clint swallows hard and gingerly reaches out with a non-IV-laced hand to touch the bruise on the side of his face. “Barton.” Clint slowly turns his head in the direction of the door, where Fury’s face comes into view. He realizes with a start that he must be in SHIELD’s hospital, which is enough to placate him a little given that he knows most grave injuries get you airlifted to larger medical centers. “Sir?” “How are you feeling?” Clint takes a moment to use the oxygen mask, realizing Natasha had a point about keeping it close. When he feels like he can breathe enough again, he removes it. “Been better.” “So I imagine,” Fury says, glancing at Natasha. “Laura’s waiting outside. We normally wouldn’t allow other agents down here unauthorized, but seeing as to how she was working on your case and involved in what went down, I thought it was warranted. And she was worried.” “About me?” Clint asks, hoping the words don’t come off as hopeful, though he’s unsure whether or not he could even control his feelings in his current state. “About both of you,” Fury answers. “If you’re up for it, I’ll send her in.” Natasha shares a quick glance with Clint, who nods off the look in her eyes. Fury nods back. “Both of you — no work for at least a week,” he warns before he leaves, looking at each of them in turn. “Barton, I don’t want to as much hear you in SHIELD meeting rooms until doctors officially clear you. I’m not risking my two best agents operating at half their potential.” He exits the room, the door swinging quietly in the wake of his words. In another moment, the door opens again and Laura walks in. Clint knows he must look like sh*t given that he’s the one who was almost fatally injured, but she looks like she’s gone through her own sort of hell. Her hair is messy in a way that he knows she’d never let herself show in the office, there’s redness around her eyes that indicates she’s either been crying a lot or not sleeping, and her clothes are wrinkled. “Hey,” he says, trying not to notice how much she looks like she’s falling apart. “Uh. We’re okay.” Laura shakes her head, her eyes welling with fresh tears. “You’re not,” she says shakily and he can see her face starting to fracture the same way her words are. “You’re not, because of me. My intel was off. I read…I read a letter wrong because I was working too fast and it threw off the whole word. If I had been right, you would’ve been more cautious. This wouldn’t have happened. I should’ve —” “Laura,” Natasha breaks in firmly. “No one blames you, I promise. If anything –” “Stop,” Laura cuts back loudly. “Please, stop. I know this is my fault…I already feel terrible, you don’t have to make me feel better.” Natasha looks at Clint and puts her hand over his, running her fingers over his skin. “You know this line of work comes with risks,” she says slowly. “We all do. Whether or not something is your fault, it doesn’t matter in the end. We all make mistakes. And the important thing is that everyone is okay.” Laura digs her lower teeth into her upper lip and glances at Clint, who meets her eyes before quickly dropping his gaze. “I’m not staying,” she says finally. “I just came to see how you were doing…I needed to know you were alright.” “We’re alright,” Natasha answers with a small smile. “I promise, Laura. It takes more than a little poisonous gas to take us down.” Clint looks up again just in time to see a hint of a smile gracing Laura’s face, but it’s gone before he can blink. “Thank you,” she says in a wavering voice before turning around, leaving the room as quickly as she’d arrived. Natasha heaves out a sigh once she’s gone, sitting down on the bed next to him. “You think she’s going to blame herself forever?” she asks, tangling their fingers together. Clint tries to shrug. “If she didn’t, she wouldn’t be a SHIELD agent,” he replies honestly, tugging on her hand until she looks at him. He wants to get his mind off the way Laura had been looking at him, the way he had a feeling her worry was centered on one person in the room more than the other. “I know I didn’t say it, but thanks for saving me.” “Oh, well.” Natasha smiles and kisses him lightly on the cheek. “If you didn’t say it, I’d worry that maybe you’re taking me for granted.” “Never,” Clint promises, closing his eyes again. “I mean, if I didn’t have you, who’d get my six?” “I’m sure you’d find someone,” Natasha says as she snuggles up against him. “You’re an easy person to love, Clint Barton.”   ***   Afterward, things change. Clint doesn’t want to admit that they change, but he can’t help it. Laura’s softer with him during missions, almost as if she doesn’t want to treat him as harshly, and Clint finds he’s more willing to listen rather than just writing off her suggestions. He doesn’t ask if Natasha has noticed the change because he feels like if anything, she can blame her suspicions on the fact that almost dying had made them all realize just how little being petty about working together mattered in the grand scheme of things. And then, almost two months after Clint has returned to work, Fury calls Strike Team: Delta into his office and clears his throat in a very formal manner. “I’m informing you that Laura has resigned as your acting agent.” Clint, who has been staring at the floor in preparation for another lecture of their latest mission report, whips his head up at his boss’ words. “Excuse me?” “Do I need to repeat myself?” Fury asks, looking annoyed. “Laura’s off your case, starting today.” “Why?” Fury sighs, shaking his head. “I wish I knew. I thought it was the best idea in the world — putting one of my best goddamn agents with my other best goddamn agents. And now...” He shrugs, throwing a folder onto the table in defeat. “She told me she needed to step away from fieldwork due to some personal issues,” he continues, his voice turning deadpan. “I thought you’d be happy about this, Barton. I know how much you’ve enjoyed working with her.” “Yeah, but —” Clint pauses, catching Fury’s watchful eye. But what? But I like her now? But I think I could maybe see myself falling in love with her? But I still want to work with her? “But I don’t want to work with someone new,” he finishes, saving his thoughts. Fury sighs again. “No, you and Romanoff aren’t going to work with someone new. If I’m not putting the best with the best, I’m not screwing around. You’re going back to the way you’ve always worked, and Coulson will continue to be your main point of contact.” “But, sir —” “Barton, we’re done here. Romanoff, any questions?” “No sir,” Natasha answers smoothly, though Clint can tell she’s merely playing along so she can save him from getting into another argument. He clenches his jaw, getting up and moving towards the door. He doesn’t wait to see if Natasha follows, knowing she will, and it’s only when they’ve walked halfway down the long corridor that he feels her grab him from behind, shoving him clumsily against the wall. “What the f*** was that about?” Natasha hisses, pulling at his still-sore arm. “Ow!” Clint mutters, twisting in her hold. “What was what about?” “Seriously?” Natasha looks like she’s going to lose it. “Clint, for months I’ve heard you do nothing but complain about Laura and how stupid it is that we have to work with her. I know things have been better lately, but Fury just told us that we basically got a get out of jail free card and you’re suddenly pushing back. Are you okay?” “Yeah,” he says, struggling against her hold, finally managing to shove her away. “I’m fine, I — I’m just annoyed, okay? And why the hell do you care?” “Because you’re my partner,” Natasha responds hotly. “And it’s my professional life that’s affected by this, too.” “Okay, well, you made your point,” Clint answers gruffly, moving away from her. “Drop it.” He walks quickly, managing to get to the elevator at the end of the hallway, the doors opening right as he pushes the button. Natasha stays close on his heels and when they’re safely inside, she breaks the silence almost immediately. “You like her.” “No I don’t!” Clint bursts back, but he knows that even if Natasha hadn’t been dumb enough to read the signs, his instant defensive nature has probably just given him away. As it is, Natasha snorts out a muffled laugh. “Jesus,” she says, leaning back against the elevator wall and cupping her own face with two palms. “How long?” Clint lets out a long sigh that sounds like a gunshot in the quiet space, knowing he’s f***ed. At this point, he wonders why he’s even bothering to pretend. It’s not like they were working together anymore as of five minutes ago. “About six months,” he admits in a low voice as Natasha’s eyebrows shoot up. “Before Zagreb?” “Yeah,” Clint says slowly. “Before that. It, uh…we went for drinks right after we started working together because she wanted to get to know me outside of SHIELD. And it kinda…we kinda…” He bites down on his lip, not knowing how to continue. “Anyway, don’t worry. We’ve never, like, done anything. We’ve just been seeing each other on and off. She’s never even been to my apartment.” Natasha remains silent as the elevator lands softly on the ground floor of the building, the doors whizzing open. Clint walks out slowly with Natasha at his side, letting the silence percolate until he can’t take it anymore. “Oh come on. Say it.” “Say what?” Natasha asks, looking for all the world genuinely confused. Clint groans, slapping a hand across his forehead. “Tell me I told you so. Tell me I’m predictable.” Natasha laughs lightly. “You’re predictable,” she agrees with a smile, looping her arm through his as they walk. “But I like her and she’s hot, so…your taste preferences could definitely be worse.”   ***   After Clint’s finished up with work for the day, he asks Laura if she wants to get dinner. He’s almost worried that she won’t come, thinking maybe she wants distance or that she’s embarrassed, given the fact he’s pretty sure she’d quit the job she loved because of him. But she accepts his invitation and arrives at the small pizza restaurant promptly at 8. Clint doesn’t miss a beat before he dives in. “So is what you told Fury true? You’re retiring?” Laura looks a little taken aback by his words but manages to nod. “Yes,” she admits after collecting herself. “It’s true. I’m not retiring, though. I still want to do some work at SHIELD, or elsewhere. I’m just taking a step back from active desk duty.” “Because of me?” Laura pauses with a glass of water halfway to her mouth and puts it down before she can drink it. “Because of a few reasons,” she says, her tone indicating that her carefully chosen words are a lie. He glances at the door, watching people come into the restaurant, and picks up his own water glass. “Clint.” Clint looks up, finding her eyes, which are soft and warm. Laura smiles at him in an almost reassuring way. “Look, I love being an agent. It's what I’ve wanted to do my whole life. But sometimes…” Laura trails off. “I don’t know. Do you ever feel like the path you’re on can change? And that maybe what you’ve always wanted is something else and you’ve never realized it because you’ve never…you’ve never asked yourself whether or not you wanted it?” “I…” It’s Clint’s turn to trail off, because hadn’t been like Laura. He hadn’t grown up watching spy movies or dreaming of a day when he could make the world a better place. His world had been filled with uncertainty, worrying about where he was going to get his next meal or if he was going to have enough money from a kill to survive for another week on the street. As much as he never wanted to feel like SHIELD saved him from anything, he knew it did, and finding his purpose among people who were also skilled at doing things like fighting or combat was part of a life he’d assumed he’d have forever. “I guess it’s hard when you haven’t known anything else,” Clint says, hoping she’ll be able to tell that he’s talking about himself and not her. “I guess,” Laura agrees, looking down at her empty plate. Clint reaches across the table and takes her hand, entwining their fingers together. “So…should I ask what this new development in your professional life means for us?” “Well.” Laura puts her other hand on top of his, clasping it tightly. “It means that no matter what I decide to do in the future, I’m not a SHIELD agent anymore.” She smiles shyly and a little mischievously. “So if you’re up for it, I guess we can actually try that dating thing we’ve been putting off.”   ***   With SHIELD off the table when it comes to Laura’s work and Natasha finally clued in about his real feelings, Clint finds that it’s actually easy — and moreover, fun — to date Laura Morse. He finally asks her to come over to his apartment and she finally asks him to come over to hers. They start leaving things like clothes and toothbrushes at each other’s places and outside of work, they take more time to talk openly about their interests and pasts and likes and dislikes. Laura plans a weekend trip to Martha’s Vineyard one day as a surprise, for no other reason than wanting to spend time somewhere that’s not New York. For two days, sleeping next to her at an Airbnb no bigger than his apartment, Clint feels like he’s happier than he’s been in a long time. It’s refreshing. It’s nice. It’s what he’s wanted, and what he’s never realized he’s wanted. The best part, he would argue, is that because Laura actually knows him and his relationship with Natasha, he doesn’t have to feel weird about all three of them hanging out — even when it clearly infringes on what could otherwise pass as a legitimate date night. “I don’t know anyone else who wouldn’t feel threatened by my best work friend showing up unannounced,” Clint says when Natasha arrives at his apartment unexpectedly one night, holding pizza and a case of beer while Laura massages Clint’s bare shoulders. “Get used to it,” Natasha replies, closing the door with her foot. “I’m never leaving. I made him sign a blood contract when he took me in.” “That’s not entirely a lie,” Clint adds as Laura gives him a look. “I was bleeding. I’m pretty sure she managed to get her name somewhere without me seeing.” Laura’s lips fold into a smile. “I’ll forgive you both if I can have some of that pizza.” “What, you thought it was just for me?” Natasha asks innocently. “I already ate. I’m just being the nice friend who brings some lovebirds their dinner.”


05/13/2022 05:02 PM 

Mirror, Mirror

Summary: While poking around in corners of the palace, Loki finds a peculiar mirror that doesn't show his reflection. Things only go downhill from there.             He wasn’t looking for trouble. He wasn’t looking for anything in particular, really, just poking around in one of the many, many palace storerooms that sat forgotten if not abandoned. For the most part there was nothing interesting in them. Every so often, though, Loki found something that was - an ancient manuscript, a miniature dragon’s skeleton, a strange black orb that could throw an entire room into darkness blacker than the Void. (That one...made Loki a little nervous. But he kept it squirreled away on his shelf anyway, and nerves hadn’t stopped him from using it to terrify Thor. He’d deserved it. Leaving Loki behind, again, without so much as asking. Ass.) He couldn’t say what about the mirror caught his eye - it was broken, after all, a few shards of silvered glass lying on the floor that crunched under Loki’s heel. He crouched down in front of it, studying the slender silver frame - remarkably simple. Realizing abruptly what it was that he’d noticed, Loki’s eyes widened. The glass didn’t reflect his face. There was no answering gleam in the mirror of the witchlight hovering over his shoulder. The broken pieces stayed dark and gleaming. Loki pulled a piece of glass away and turned it over; the back was the same. “Why make a mirror that reflects nothing?” Loki asked it, frowning. He flexed his fingers and stepped back, concentrating. The shards on the floor flew back into the frame, the cracks fusing together. When he finished, there were still a few pieces missing, but it was almost whole. Nothing appeared in the glass, however - it remained dark, though he thought he could almost see the darkness moving. Loki pursed his lips and reached out to run his finger over the glass. Maybe it was because it was incomplete? If he could find the missing pieces… He nicked his finger on a sharp edge of the glass and hissed, jerking his hand back. Looking from the blood welling up on his fingertip to the opaque surface of the mirror, Loki chewed the inside of his cheek and then smeared blood on the glass. For a moment nothing happened, and Loki exhaled in disappointment. Then the streak of blood sank into the mirror and disappeared. Loki jerked back. A thousand warnings cut across his mind: blood magic is unpredictable, dangerous, carries a high price. But he hadn’t done anything. Still, he stood up quickly and took a step back, wringing his hands and staring nervously at the mirror. It didn’t do anything, though, except that the faint trace of movement he’d thought he’d seen was gone. “Well,” said a quiet voice behind him. “And who are you?” Loki spun around, magic surging to his hands, but there was no one there. Or - no. Not no one. But not someone, either. It was like wisps of smoke that almost formed the outline of a person - not solid enough to even be called a shadow. Loki took a step back. “Who - what are you?” “I do not know,” it said. Its voice was high, strangely musical, and sent shivers down Loki’s spine. “I was caged. And now I am free.” Loki glanced at the mirror. “In that?” He asked, curious in spite of himself. “Yes,” it said after a moment. “I suppose so.” Loki had the impression he was being scrutinized, though he could see no eyes. “Will you tell me your name?” “I am-” Loki remembered, in time, that it was unwise to give one’s name to unfamiliar magical creatures. Names had power, and some beings could use it for ill ends. “Loptr,” he said, after a moment, and chose to leave off prince of Asgard as well. “No,” it said after a moment. “That is not your name.” Loki flinched, then blinked. “How should you know?” He said. “You do not even know your own, and you would call me a liar?” “Yes,” it said. “That is a name for you. Liar.” Loki’s eyes widened and this time he did summon his magic. “Begone,” he snapped. “You are not welcome here, spirit.” He sketched the rune of banishing in the air, and flicked his hand to trigger it. The apparition dispersed like dust before a strong wind. Loki stared at the air where it had been, his stomach churning. That is a name for you. It was nothing anyone had ever said in his hearing. But he wondered, sometimes, if silvertongue was an epithet that masked something less fair-sounding. He shook himself. The thing had been a ghost from a mirror, not an oracle. Hardly worth the effort it had taken to banish it. Still, the chill lingered, and he left the room perhaps a little hastily. Loki went back to his room, feeling oddly drained, and found Thor waiting for him by the door and scowling at it. He checked his stride for a moment, exhaled, and walked over to him. “Did you try to open it?” He asked. Thor turned to look at him, holding out his reddened palm. “It burned me. When did you set wards on your door?” “After the fourth time you interrupted me in the middle of delicate work,” Loki said, unapologetic, but he reached for Thor’s hand, working a simple spell that sank into his skin, the red fading away. “What did you want?” “Not me,” Thor said. “Father. He asked for us both.” Loki blinked, anxiety bubbling in his stomach. “Did he say why?” “No,” Thor said, and scrutinized his face. “Did you do something?” Loki stiffened. “Do something? What makes you think I did something?” Thor put up his hands hastily. “I was just asking!” “If it were about me,” Loki said, annoyed, “why summon both of us?” Though he did wonder. Had their father sensed what had happened with the mirror? It seemed unlikely that he would have, and the room he’d found it in wasn’t technically forbidden, but... “Perhaps he is going to send us to look into the disturbance in the southeast,” Thor said, sounding hopeful. “Apparently there is some sort of monster ravaging farms.” “He won’t,” Loki said. “We’re too young.” Thor scowled, as though he resented the reminder, and Loki rolled his shoulders back. “We should go. I don’t want to be late.” Thor’s eyes widened a little. “You’re right,” he said. “If we’re in trouble, I’m telling him it was your fault. Where were you, anyway?” “About,” Loki said vaguely. Thor looked like he wanted to roll his eyes, but just reached out and shoved Loki instead. “Skulking in the library seeking new tricks?” He said with a laugh. Loki pushed away the anger that prickled between his shoulder blades and summoned a smile he hoped looked mysterious. “Something like that.” The door to their father’s study was open. Thor went in without knocking, and Loki trailed after. Odin looked at him briefly, his single eye piercing, before turning his gaze on Thor. Loki shifted, but stayed quiet. “You told me to find Loki - I found him. So what is it you want to tell us?” “You’re old enough now,” their father said at length, “to take on some new responsibilities.” Oh. Loki relaxed. So he was not in trouble, and this was not to be a lecture. He straightened, a little, trying not to smile. Thor straightened as well, less successful at hiding his pleasure. “We’re honored, father,” he said, and if Loki felt a twinge of resentment at being spoken for, he tucked it away. “What would you have us do?” Their father stood slowly. “It is time you began to learn what it is to rule,” he said. “The responsibilities of kingship. From now on, you will spend your afternoons with me, observing council meetings.” Thor deflated. Loki stifled his laugh: he’d still been hoping to be sent out to slay a monster. This, Loki thought, was much better. This was trust, not just of their skills but that they would not embarrass the All-Father or Asgard. It meant learning not just the theory of politics but its practice. Loki could see Thor on the point of trying to protest, and cut in quickly. “Thank you,” he said. “We look forward to learning--” “I was speaking to Thor,” Odin said calmly, and Loki was brought up short like he’d just run into a door suddenly closed in front of him. “What?” He said, stupidly. “What?” Thor said, sounding equally surprised, and looked at Loki in confusion. “Why? Why doesn’t Loki have to go?” “Loki will be spending his time with Halvar,” their father said. Loki felt like he’d been punched in the stomach. The treasurer. Thor was to be privy to their father’s highest councils, and he was to spend his days counting coins? Thor’s eyebrows knitted together. “With Halvar? But-” “Thor,” their father said, and though it was mild even Thor heard the warning in it and shut his mouth. “I have made my decision.” Why, Loki wanted to demand, like Thor. He bit his tongue, though there was a pit that had opened in his stomach. And humiliation burning in his cheeks, for assuming as much as he had. Don’t you know your place by now? He lowered his eyes. “I am grateful for this opportunity, Father,” he said, words carefully measured. “I will do my best not to disappoint you.” He felt Thor glance at him, and then back at their father. “I am...also grateful,” he said, but the words were stiff. There was a tightness in Loki’s chest and he bit the inside of his cheek so he didn’t start fidgeting with his hands. “May I go?” He asked, keeping his voice even. “I was in the middle of - a project. It shouldn’t be left unattended too long.” It was a weak lie, and he was sure for a moment that Odin would call him on it, but he just nodded. “Go on,” he said. “We will speak more later.” Loki bowed his head and left the room with as much dignity as he could manage, keeping his head high as he turned back toward his rooms. His lungs felt too tight. Don’t be an idiot, he thought viciously. This is - it’s an honor. He’s giving you more responsibility. It doesn’t matter what the responsibility is. You’re younger than Thor, it only makes sense-- But he was the one who applied himself to his studies more. He was the one who did better in their classes on politics and history and comportment. He was secondborn. He wasn’t Thor. “Loki!” He stopped, inhaling through his nose and keeping his fists from clenching at his sides, but he didn’t turn. “Loki,” Thor said, coming around in front of him. “I tried to tell him-” “You shouldn’t have bothered,” Loki said. “You know as well as I do that father doesn’t change his mind.” “I don’t understand,” Thor said, shaking his head. Loki shrugged. “I suppose he thinks it is where we need to be.” “Yes, but…” Thor trailed off, and shook his head with a forced laugh. “I don’t know why you’d be upset. At least Halvar is young. I’m to be stuck listening to a flock of gossiping greybeards.” Loki felt a flash of anger and stifled it. He forced a smile. “Mind you don’t fall asleep.” “Without you there to prod me awake, I just might,” Thor said. Loki looked away from him, and Thor reached out to grip his shoulder. “Let’s go riding. I’ll find Fandral and Sif and the others-” “No, thank you,” Loki said, pulling away. “I’d rather...skulk about in the library.” His smile felt more and more forced. “Go on,” he said, when Thor’s eyebrows pulled together. “Enjoy yourself. You’re soon to lose your freedom, after all.” “If you’re certain,” Thor said, after a long pause. “Of course I am,” Loki said. “Stop worrying.” Thor squeezed his shoulder. “Tomorrow,” he said. “I will drag you out into the sun. You are beginning to look positively ghostly.” Loki watched him walk away, waiting until he was out of sight to let the smile fall away. He wove a spell around himself that would keep him unnoticed the rest of the way back to his room, and sank down into his favorite chair, resting his head in his hands. It was fine, he told himself. Fine. “He loves you less,” said a voice, and Loki’s head snapped up. He looked around wildly. “Who’s there?” “He looks at you and sees the lesser son,” said the same voice, and Loki lurched to his feet, calling on his magic and scanning wildly back and forth. “He doesn’t trust you. Thor shines in his eyes, but are a shadow.” Loki found it, finally. It stood in a corner, little more than a vague outline, a shimmer in the air. He straightened up, jaw tightening. “You,” he said. “I banished you-” “You thought you had,” it said. “But I didn’t go far.” Loki raised a hand to sketch the banishing sigil again. “Don’t you wonder,” it said, “why he loves you less?” “He doesn’t,” Loki said angrily. “Thor is older. That’s all-” “Is it?” “You’re a ghost - a demon,” Loki said. “What do you know of love?” “I see more clearly than you do, a child chasing your father’s approval. You’ll never have it. You may as well give up.” Loki’s hands clenched into fists and he wrote the sigil in quick, jerking gestures, triggering it. The figure wavered, but did not vanish. “Pathetic,” it said. Loki licked his lips and tried again, but it was gone before he even finished the spell. Like it had never been there. Loki took several heaving, deep breaths. He could feel himself shaking and bit down hard on his lower lip. He wasn’t going to cry. He wasn’t a child and he wouldn’t act like one. A child chasing your father’s approval. Loki dug his fingernails into his palms and bent his head forward, fighting for control as hard as he could. Tomorrow...tomorrow he’d go see if he could find information about how to banish malevolent spirits. He’d start work with Halvar and he’d do it well, prove that he could be trusted, that he was responsible, that he could be useful. It was - disappointing, of course, but it wasn’ didn’t mean anything. Didn’t mean… He loves you less. Thor shines in his eyes, but you are a shadow. Loki shoved the words away. It was the shadow, not him. It didn’t leave him alone. It came back again when he was studying in the library, poring over tome after tome of Asgard’s history. The more he knew, after all, the more valuable he could be to Asgard. And yet as he focused on memorizing the law codes implemented by Buri the Undefeated, he felt it like a shadow falling over him. “Why are you bothering with this? It won’t change anything.” Loki hunched his shoulders. Perhaps if he simply ignored it. He needed to look up stronger banishing spells. Something more permanent. Spells of destruction, even. “It doesn’t matter how much you know, little liar.” Its voice had changed; it sounded deeper, less musical. “It isn’t what you know. It’s what you are.” Don’t call me a liar, Loki wanted to say, but he bit his tongue and tried to focus on the page. In the third year of his reign- “And you know what you are, don’t you?” It sounded closer. Goosebumps rose on the back of Loki’s neck but he refused to turn and look. “Lesser. Inferior. Unworthy.” Loki’s stomach clenched along with his teeth. He closed the book and made himself stand to take it back to the shelves. Sliding it back into place, careful to line up the spines perfectly. “The heir and the spare,” it said. “Why do they even bother? They have everything Asgard needs in Thor.” He couldn’t hold back. He whirled around and threw one of his knives directly at its heart. It passed harmlessly through, black parting around it and reforming in its wake. Loki stared. It looked more solid now, more real, the outline clearer and less wavering. He almost took a step back, but refused to give ground, clenching his fists. “You can pour all the poison you like in my ears,” he said, and his face burned to hear how his voice shook, “but I will not listen to a word of it. I am Loki, Prince of Asgard, a son of Odin-” “Ah,” it said, sounding satisfied. “So that is your name, little liar. Loki.” His stomach plunged. Idiot, he thought savagely. You utter fool, a little stung pride and you give up your true name to this mirror-demon, a dark creature of unknown nature? “Loki,” it said. “Yes.” He took a step back, breathing quickly. “Loki?” He heard. Thor’s voice, but Loki didn’t call back, standing frozen, staring at the thing he’d unleashed. “Loki! Where are you?” “You had better answer,” it said. “Or he will leave without you. As he always will. Every year, he leaves you further behind.” “Be silent,” Loki said, and hated how his voice quavered. “You know nothing. You are nothing.” “I only speak what you do not want to admit,” the shadow said. “Loki!” Thor called again, and he took a step back. “Begone,” he said, finally calling on his magic and lashing out with it. The shadow melted away, but Loki could have sworn he heard it laughing as it did. His throat burned and he wanted to scream at it: you’re wrong, Thor will never leave me, we’re brothers, no one is bound so closely together as we are. Thor rounded the corner. “There you are,” he said, sounding impatient. “I’ve been calling you for ages. What were you studying that was so interesting?” Loki glanced away with a shrug. “Nothing,” he said. “What did you want?” “Sif and I are going for a ride,” Thor said. “Do you want to join us?” For another afternoon of standing to the side and watching the two of you banter and tease each other? No, thank you, Loki thought, but the shadow’s words crept into his mind: he will leave without you. Every year, he leaves you further behind. Loki balled his hands into fists and forced himself to open them and shrug as though it didn’t much matter. “Why not? I’m finished here.” Thor brightened, and his smile went a long way toward sweeping aside some of Loki’s uncertainties. He glanced uneasily over his shoulder as he left, searching the corners for any suspicious looking shadows. Perhaps, he thought briefly, he ought to say something to Odin or Frigga about the thing. Loki dismissed the thought immediately. It was just a small problem. A nuisance, nothing more. Not worth bringing to them at all. The next few days were quiet, though Loki caught himself peering suspiciously at any patches of darkness that seemed out of place. He began shadowing Halvar, and was surprised by how engaging he found the work. It was not glamorous, certainly, but it was...interesting. And more complicated than just counting coins. Still, for all Thor complained about how dull the meetings he attended were, a private envy still gnawed at him. And some part of him wondered if Thor was deliberately exaggerating how hateful he found it to make Loki feel better, which seemed too much like pity for Loki to appreciate. For a few days, Loki dared to think he might have gotten rid of the mirror-shadow for good. Then - oh, then. Thor was joining their father on a journey to Vanaheim. A brief one, Thor said. Just a few days, Thor said. Loki did not ask if he had been invited; the sheepish, almost nervous look on Thor’s face was clear enough. The way he was trying to make excuses. Loki forced a smile. “You’ll have to tell me all about it when you return,” he said, injecting false cheer into his voice that didn’t sound convincing even to him. Thor’s face fell. “You’re not jealous, are you?” He asked. “It’s only Vanaheim. Besides, wouldn’t you rather stay here anyway? It’ll all be talks and meetings with dull Vanir lords. Nothing exciting.” Meetings with your future liege lords. Parties where you will dazzle and charm everyone there, as you always do. Loki’s shoulders tensed. “Easy for you to say,” he snapped. “It isn’t you always getting left behind.” Thor straightened. “What are you yelling at me for? It’s not my fault.” Yes it is, Loki thought, unexpectedly savage. It is your fault, you’re like a fire burning up all the oxygen in the room so there’s nothing left for me. You are the heir and I am the spare and everyone knows it. I’m nothing more than your shadow. “You’re right,” Loki said. “It’s not your fault that Father likes you more.” Thor stared at him, shocked, and then laughed. “What do you mean? Don’t be ridiculous, Loki.” “You wouldn’t see it, would you,” Loki said. “After all, it’s only what you deserve.” Thor’s face darkened. “What’s gotten into you? Why are you making so much fuss about one little trip?” Loki looked away. It’s not fair, he thought, like the child he wasn’t supposed to be anymore. “Never mind,” Loki said bitterly. “It doesn’t matter.” Thor frowned at him. “Fine,” he said. “Go on and sulk.” He turned on his heel and stormed away. Loki resisted the urge to call after him and just stood, hands balled into fists at his sides and breathing hard. Only a few seconds after Thor was out of sight, though, the anger melted away, leaving a hollow space where it had been. Loki slumped, feeling childish and stupid. He’d lost his temper with Thor, driven him off, and it didn’t mean anything. Nothing changed. Thor was still going, and he still wasn’t. “He is probably going to your father right now.” Loki whirled around, tensing. One shadow detached itself from a cluster of them, and Loki almost thought he could see the glitter of eyes. He took a step back. “Back again?” he said, trying for callous disdain though he fell far short of it. “What do you think he will say?” The shadow said, as though he hadn’t spoken. “That his brother is envious, full of petty jealousy?” Loki opened his mouth to argue and snapped it shut. He shouldn’t give it the attention. It was trying to provoke him, clearly, and he was not going to be manipulated by a phantasm from a mirror. “You make a very pathetic prince,” the shadow said. Loki dug his nails into the palms of his hands and turned away, stalking back toward his rooms. “Are you going to sulk now?” The shadow called, and Loki whirled before he could stop himself, hissing the harshest banishing spell he’d ever memorized. The shadow melted away - and reformed a moment later. Loki froze, breath catching in his throat. “Is it any wonder that you aren’t being brought along?” It said sweetly. It swayed to and fro like a snake, it’s form for a moment almost something like a man before it blurred back into shapelessness. “’It’s not fair.’ Of course it is. This is a reward, and you have to earn rewards. What have you done to earn anything?” Loki couldn’t seem to move. He opened his mouth to object, but the only words that bubbled up in his mind were it’s right, you know. “Nothing,” the shadow said, like it was relishing the word. “Nothing at all, little liar. If you hadn’t been born in this one would ever look at you twice.” “Stop it,” Loki said. The shadow laughed. “Why? It isn’t anything you don’t already know. Oh, you try to smother it in comforting platitudes. You are a prince. Born to be a king. But there is one heir to Asgard’s throne, and it isn’t you.” Loki swallowed hard, or tried, the lump in his throat seeming to block it. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. “I do not need to be king. I can be just as important at Thor’s side–” “Behind him, you mean,” the shadow interrupted, drawing nearer and seeming to bend down. It was man-shaped, now, long and spindly fingers reaching toward Loki’s face. “Unseen. Unnoticed. Or do you really believe your own lies?” Iron bands tightened around Loki’s chest, squeezing his ribs. “What do you want from me,” he said. “The truth,” the shadow said, voice suddenly turning gentle. “It may be painful now, but isn’t it better to know than to pretend?” Loki wavered. He shook his head. “I don’t believe you. Are you really claiming that you are just trying to help?” “The sooner you admit what you are,” the shadow crooned, “the better off you will be. The better off everyone will be.” Loki’s eyes burned. He turned his back. “I will not listen to you,” he said, teeth gritted. “You are - you are just some dark thing seeking to poison my mind. To weaken me. It won’t work.” The shadow withdrew its hands. “There is only so long you can hide,” it said. “You already know I am right.” Then it was gone. Loki let out a ragged breath that sounded just on the edge of a sob and sucked it back in, blinking rapidly several times until he had himself back under control. He felt shaky, chilled, like he was coming down with a fever. He could still hear its voice echoing in his head, slithering through his thoughts and taking root. You already know I am right. Loki pressed the back of his hand to his mouth, turned on his heel, and went to go for a ride, hoping that the fresh air would clear his head. Then he would come back and look for stronger banishing spells. Or maybe workings to lock spirits into objects. It had come out of a mirror; maybe Loki could trap it in another one. Do you really believe your own lies? Loki dug his fingernails into his palms, the sting grounding him somewhat. It was something, at least. Something to focus on that wasn’t the word nothing circling in his mind like a vulture eyeing a dying animal. Loki woke up the morning after his argument with Thor with a headache and exhaustion dogging his heels. His thoughts were a blurry, confused, muddle and while he couldn’t remember them, he knew he’d had terrible dreams. He took breakfast with his mother, who watched him picking disinterestedly at his food and frowned. “Are you feeling well, Loki?” She asked. He raised his head and forced a smile. “Yes,” he said automatically, and then said, “a bit tired.” She smiled. “Working hard? I know your father has been giving you and Thor more responsibilities. I hope he isn’t leaving you with no time for yourself.” “No,” Loki said quickly. “No - I can’t complain. I - I appreciate it, truly. It’s an honor.” Frigga gave him an odd look, a frown touching the corners of her mouth. “Well, then,” she said. “I am...glad to hear that.” “Yes,” Loki said. “Yes, it’s...good.” He took an overlarge bite of egg that tasted like paper, and forced himself to chew and swallow before setting down his fork. “May I...ask you something, mother?” “Anything, love,” she said with a smile. Loki looked down at his plate. “Do you know of…” He paused. “I was reading something, and...can mirrors be used to trap things? Spirits, or the like?” Frigga paused, and after a moment set down her own utensils. “What were you reading?” Loki shrugged. “I don’t remember what it was called. It wasn’t about...just a passing mention, and it got me thinking.” The lie came to him easily. A faint frown line appeared between his mother’s eyebrows. “It’s old magic,” she said, finally. “Not much in use anymore. It used to be done, in order to sequester certain types of spirits.” “Why not anymore?” Loki asked. How is it done? He couldn’t exactly say that, though, without losing the pretense that this was a theoretical discussion. And he did not much want to tell his mother that he’d loosed something unpleasant on Asgard by accident. She would think he was such a stupid, ignorant child. Imagining the disappointment on her face - without even touching his father’s anger… Frigga spoke slowly, as though considering her words carefully. “Mages these days favor banishing,” she said. “It was not...a permanent solution, after all. Mirrors can be easily broken, and the spirit within freed. And it was used, also, as a means to...bind spirits to a sorcerer’s will. Rather than banishing them entirely, they could be tied to the earthly plane and used.” She gave Loki a sharp look. “I needn’t tell you how dangerous that sort of magic-working is. And how easily twisted to evil ends.” A shiver went down Loki’s spine. “I know,” he said. He remembered, quite vividly, Frigga’s description of what happened to mages who lost control of spirits they tried to bind. Which was all of them, eventually. His mother relaxed slightly. “Ultimately,” she went on, “the whole practice was deemed too dangerous, and as summoning magic fell out of favor in general, it was one of the first things to be discarded.” She examined him. “Does that answer your question?” “What happened when the spirit was freed?” Loki asked carefully. “Couldn’t you just banish it?” Frigga hummed. “Often, yes - though of course that isn’t always such a simple task. But sometimes…” She examined him, and Loki thought she was debating whether or not to say something. He held still and tried to look curious but innocent. “Sometimes the spirit would...fix on the person who broke the mirror. A way to insure that a rival mage did not free a spirit in order to sabotage her fellow who had called it to begin with. In those cases, extricating it from the material plane became a great deal more complicated.” “But it could be done,” Loki blurted out, before he could stop himself. “I mean - it wasn’t permanent.” “No, of course not,” Frigga said, giving him a strange look. “Few things are. But it is seldom a benefit to have a spirit fixed to your heels - especially one that has been trapped and is likely angry.” She paused. “But all of is history, Loki. You are thoroughly unlikely to run into anything of the like unless you go looking for it.” Loki tried to smile and look relieved. “Thank you for indulging my curiosity,” he said, and picked up his fork again to resume eating, staring down at his plate. Conversation fell quiet for a while. “Loki,” his mother said abruptly, and he looked up to see an expression of concern on her face. “You know if something is bothering can always come to me. Don’t you?” “I - of course,” Loki said, somewhat automatically, and then, “why?” “I know that…” she seemed to be considering. “Thor said that you were...upset by the fact that you were not to be joining him and your father on their journey to Vanaheim.” Loki’s stomach turned sour. He imagined Thor complaining to their mother about Loki, about his petty, resentful little brother. He controlled his face with an effort. “It’s all right,” he said, forcing a little smile. “I understand that it’s not about me. It’s just not my turn yet. I’m not upset.” “Really,” she said. “I guess I was, a little,” Loki said. “But I thought about it, and not anymore.” It was so easy to lie. So...natural. “Good,” his mother said after a pause. “That’s good. I’m glad to hear it.” Something in his chest ached. He’d wanted her to say something else, Loki realized. To push, or to agree with him that it was unfair, or...something. He wasn’t even sure what that would be, exactly. Just that not getting it left him feeling rather hollow. Loki slept poorly, restlessly, and woke with his head aching and full of wool. He couldn’t remember his dreams, only that they’d been unpleasant. Thor and Odin were leaving today, he remembered, and wanted to roll over, pull the blankets up over his head, and go back to sleep. “You look pathetic.” “Go away,” Loki said, and cringed at how childish it sounded. “Why? So you can lie here moping alone?” The shadow scoffed. Its voice sounded different than it had before - clearer, and strangely familiar. “As I said. Pathetic.” Loki pushed the blankets back and sat up. The shadow was there, and its outline seemed more solid, now, like it was getting stronger, gaining more of a foothold. Loki turned his back resolutely and began dressing himself, trying to ignore the warning prickle on the back of his neck. “Ignore me all you like,” the shadow said. “It is no less true, and you know it. Besides, pathetic is the best that can be said of you, little liar.” Loki hunched his shoulders and said nothing, marching into the bathroom to splash cold water on his face in the hopes that it would clear his head. “What a performance you gave for your mother,” the shadow went on, its voice following him. “How she loves you. And you repay her with deceit.” Loki bit the inside of his cheek so he didn’t answer, and straightened up only to jump, eyes widening. The shadow was just behind him, and for a moment he could almost make out a face; he did feel it when it reached out and caressed the side of his face, cold as ice, and he flinched hastily away. “I know what you are,” he hissed, his stomach roiling. The chill of that touch seemed to sink into him, all the way to his core. “Nothing but a spirit, captured and bound by some sorcerer. Chained. You must have been weak.” The shadow shifted, morphed, fingers extending into claws. “Weak,” it said, more snarl than speech. Loki felt a stab of triumph. “Yes,” he said. “Weak. Trapped in a mirror. Locked away in a dusty room. Forgotten. You might be haunting me, taunting me, but that’s all you can do. You’re nothing but words.” The talons formed back into fingers. Its body coalesced back into an ordinary shape. “Is that what you think?” It said. Loki raised his chin. “It’s all you’ve done so far. Are you going to tell me you can do worse? Threaten me?” “No,” the shadow said. “No. Not threaten. Why would I threaten you?” It seemed to settle, calming. “I don’t need to threaten you.” An alarm bell was clanging at the back of Loki’s mind. “Why not?” He asked, suddenly uncertain. A flash, as of teeth. As of a smile, and a shadow, Loki thought, should not be able to smile. It stepped closer to him. “Because whether or not I threaten you,” it crooned, “you will give me what I want.” Loki’s stomach lurched and his breathing quickened. “And what is it you want, shadow?” “That,” it said, “would be telling.” It withdrew, then. “Go on, princeling. Don’t you want to bid your brother farewell?” Loki’s jaw worked. “I will be rid of you,” he said. “And all your hateful lies.” “Not lies,” it said. “Never lies. I would never lie to you, Loki.” This time he was certain of it: a smile, and it looked entirely wrong on the shadow’s not-a-face. “I don’t need to. You think I am trying to wound? I am the only one in your life who will be honest with you.” It was gone again before Loki could answer. He wrapped his arms around himself, realizing that he was shivering, chilled to the bone. His mouth flooded with saliva and he twisted quickly to vomit into the sink rather than on the floor. When the wave of nausea passed, Loki lifted his head and looked at himself in the mirror. His face was bone-white. He looked sickly, ugly. Pathetic. He conjured a glamor to cover himself and left, his stomach still twisting in knots, the cold of the shadow’s touch lingering in his bones. Loki bade Thor farewell with a smile, and Thor seemed pleased, embracing Loki hard enough that his ribs creaked and promising to bring him back some treasure - perhaps a dragon’s egg? Loki laughed, though some dark emotion still seethed in his chest as he watched Thor and Odin lead their horses out to the end of the Bifrost. He turned away before it swept them off, and went to seek out solitude. His solitude did not last for long. “And now you are alone,” the shadow said. Loki did not look at it, but he could see out of the corner of his eye that it was no longer formless at all, but well and truly man-shaped. It seemed to have shrunk, however, and where it sat on the bench beside him was nearly his exact height. “He must be relieved not to have you tagging along at his heels.” “Thor loves me,” Loki said, before he could stop himself. “You cannot make me doubt that.” The shadow laughed. “He loves having an obedient little companion who makes him greater by contrast. You make him feel superior. Give him confidence in his own greatness. After all, if ever he doubts himself, all he needs to do is look at you and think at least I am not Loki.” Loki dug his fingers into his legs. “It isn’t like that.” “Isn’t it?” He lurched to his feet and walked away, his stomach churning. It was like the shadow’s words were seeping into him, and while he tried to shake them off they were already in his bloodstream. He felt sick. “He loves me,” he insisted. “I am his brother.” “You are his shadow,” the shadow said with relish. “Your mother pities you. Your father sees you as a disappointment. Have you deluded yourself so far that you do not see it?” Loki resisted the childish urge to put his hands over his ears. “They are my family.” “So they love you out of obligation,” the shadow said. “Nothing more.” It stood as well, circling around to stand in front of him. Loki could just make out the vague outline of a face, the hint of a jawline, the suggestion of eyes. “What use are you to them otherwise? They only need one prince. They only want one.” Loki swallowed hard. His eyes and stomach burned. “Be silent.” “Weak,” the shadow said. “Foolish. Pathetic. Useless. What do you have that your brother does not? What do you have to offer?” Nothing. Nothing at all. “My magic,” he said. “I’m smarter. Cleverer.” “Who cares?” The shadow stepped closer to him, as though they were about to kiss. “Magic and trickery? A modicum of cleverness? You grasp at straws. No one wants a clever prince. A clever son. They want one who can command loyalty. Respect. One who is brave and true and a proper warrior.” “What would you have me do?” Loki burst out. “You tell me I have no place here - where exactly do you expect me to go? This is my home.” The shadow laughed, soft and vicious. “And it doesn’t want you,” it said. “Nobody wants you. You could disappear tomorrow and no one would notice, or care. You could die, and who would mourn?” Hot and shameful tears welled up and spilled over. “It’s not true,” he whispered, but his stomach ached. The shadow reached out and cupped the back of his neck with its cold hand, a mockery of affection. “You know it is,” it said, voice shifting to gentleness. “You feel its truth in your bones. Don’t you? You haven’t wanted to admit it, but it is there. Every time you are passed over for Thor. Every time you are silenced to let him speak. Every time your father ignores you. Your mother tells you that you are not different, not less, but if that is so then why do people treat you like you are? “Because you are the flaw. You are the fault along which the stone splits. You are what is wrong.” Loki stood, transfixed, trembling very slightly. “Admit it,” the shadow said. Loki swallowed hard. “I know,” he said, soft and hoarse. “I...know.” “There you are,” the shadow crooned. “Don’t you feel better?” It vanished before he could answer. Loki covered his face with his hands, still shaking, tears rolling down his cheeks. You are what is wrong. He made himself invisible and stumbled back to his rooms, where he locked the door, crawled into bed, curled up under the covers, and wept silently until he managed to escape into sleep. He woke in the middle of the night feverish and nauseated, having slept for nearly twelve hours. Stumbling to the bathroom, he vomited twice but his stomach did not settle. Dizzy and weak, his joints aching, he considered calling a healer but shoved the idea away. Odds were he’d just eaten something that had disagreed with him. He was not going to be a weakling who went whining for comfort at the slightest of pains. He tried to go back to sleep but it was elusive, and eventually he lit a candle and tried to read, but the words swam in front of his eyes. An ache started at his temples and spread until it felt like his head would split in two. The thought slid into his mind that Thor never fell ill like this. Not Thor, the mighty, the invincible, the perfect– His eyes prickled. He wanted someone to know he was suffering and come. He wanted someone to have noted his absence yesterday and come. He knew Frigga would, if he asked - she would be here in moments, and run her fingers through his hair, and comfort him, and imagining it made his chest ache with longing– But it would ring false. They love you out of obligation. Nothing more. He curled up tighter into himself. It felt a bit as though there was a small animal gnawing on his heart. “Hiding away in the dark?” Loki held in a moan. Leave me alone, he wanted to say, like a whining child. Stop it. “I’m sick,” he said. “I can see that,” the shadow said, voice smooth and sure. “What a fine figure you cut.” “Do you never tire of your own voice?” Loki demanded. He meant it to sound caustic, but it came out thin and pathetic. “Do you?” The shadow laughed. “All that talk to fill the silence. The emptiness at your core.” “That isn’t why.” “Isn’t it?” He could hear the shadow’s smile without seeing it. “I know you, Loki. You forget. I know your mind, your soul. Your thoughts and fears and secrets. I have seen the core of you, and just as your father has, have found it wanting.” Loki’s stomach clenched and he tasted bile. He bit his lip so he didn’t answer. “Look at me,” the shadow said, and there was something resonant in its voice that he could not disobey. He opened his eyes and turned his head, and his blood went cold. He was looking at his own face. Or almost: it was his, but not quite, ever so slightly wrong in a hundred small ways. Even as he looked, though, the features shifted, clarified - the clearest sign of difference was the eyes, black as pitch from lid to lid. “Do you think I would make a better you?” It said, soft and malevolent. “I doubt anyone would notice. They might even be grateful for the change.” “No,” Loki said, but it came out a croak, his throat half-closed. He couldn’t move, frozen, fear choking him. Finally, he lunged for his magic, remembering himself - only to feel it seized, bent, twisted from his control. Pain spiked through him and he cried out, struggling as his power was pulled out of him, drawn up from his core. The shadow let out a pleased sigh, like it had swallowed a draught of fine wine. Loki felt himself shivering, his vision doubling before it steadied. “Thank you,” the shadow said, “for letting me in.” The black of its eyes diminished, shrinking to a normal pupil. Loki couldn’t catch his breath, and when he struggled to rise his limbs felt like dead weight. “I won’t need you for much longer,” it went on. “A few more days. A week at most. Oh, princeling.” It bent down and kissed him, its touch, before cold as ice, now warm as ordinary flesh. “You set me free. You made me strong. I could not be more grateful that you made it so easy.” “They’ll know,” Loki managed. His voice sounded strange, distorted. “My mother will be able to tell-” “We’ll see, won’t we?” the shadow said. “Perhaps. But with my power, and yours…” Loki felt that painful tug on his magic again, sucking more out of him. “I think I can deal with her.” Loki wanted to howl, to scream, but his own power wound around him, a silencing spell tightening around his throat that left him utterly voiceless. He would not be able to so much as whimper. His head felt as though it was going to split in two, and every breath lanced pain through his lungs. His stomach lurched and heaved. “Time for me to go, little liar,” the shadow said, in Loki’s voice, and walked away. The door locked behind it. His own spells would keep it closed. Stupid, he thought savagely. Stupid, stupid, to think you could handle it on your own, to think that you were strong enough when you are nothing, nothing at all. His eyes burned with helpless, angry tears. And he was still too weak: too weak to rise, to fight, to free himself from the bonds of his own magic usurped and turned against him. He tried. Oh, he tried. But the more he fought it, the weaker he seemed to become, and ultimately, miserable and exhausted, he gave up. His only hope was that someone would realize something was wrong. But would they? They might even be grateful for the change. The tears that spilled over felt hot on his cold skin. His memories blurred. The shadow, though it was shadow no longer, returned, and laughed at his struggles that were becoming weaker by the day. He, Loki thought, was becoming the shadow himself, and he wondered if when it was over he would be locked in a mirror - or if he would simply die and be buried in some anonymous grave, or sent over the edge of Asgard into the Void. His periods of consciousness grew shorter. The despair grew stronger. He tried, belatedly, to strip away the protections that kept him from Heimdall’s sight, but he had no control over his own power, yoked as it was to the shadow’s will. “I was right,” it said to him at night, whispering in his ear. “No one has noticed anything wrong at all. It stands to reason, as no one ever noticed you.” The animal in his chest was eating through his heart. He closed his eyes and sought refuge in oblivion. His ability to fight was dwindling to almost nothing. He was on his own, maybe had always been on his own, and he wasn’t strong enough to save himself. Asgard did not need a weak prince. Asgard did not need him. The next thing he was aware of was Thor’s face looming over him, his hands on Loki’s face burning. “Loki!” he was saying, from what sounded like far away. “Stay awake, please, stay awake.” Why, Loki would have asked, if he’d been able to speak, but he could not, and could not do as Thor asked either. Slipping away, he wondered if his eyes would open again. It was dark when he woke up. He hurt, but not like he’d been beaten - somehow deeper, a sense of wrongness not yet corrected despite the fact that he could feel magic humming around him. It took a longer moment to remember what had happened, and why he was here. He must have been found. Somehow, someone had realized before it was too late. He was less relieved than it seemed as though he ought to be. Perhaps he was just too exhausted for it. Loki’s mouth was as dry as bone and he looked for water, but none had been left. He found the bell to summon an attendant, rang it, and flopped back down, staring up at the ceiling. His chest was hollow. I have seen the core of you, and just as your father has, have found it wanting. If they’d figured it out, recognized the imposter, then they knew his weakness. Knew what he had done, his mistake, his failure. Loki’s heart sank and he wanted to crawl under the bed and make himself invisible. The healer came in, but despite the nagging thirst Loki pretended to be asleep. He didn’t want to talk to anyone. Maybe never again. They didn’t leave him alone forever. Eir came back later to perform a series of tests. He only half listened to her explanation about energy drain and vulnerability to infection and careful monitoring, his attention more occupied by his mother sitting at his bedside, her hands folded in her lap and looking at him with an expression that was mostly unreadable save the faint lines of strain around her eyes. “You are recovering well so far, my Prince,” Eir said. “But it will be a couple days yet before you can leave this room for your own quarters.” She glanced at Frigga, bowed, and went out, leaving the two of them alone. Loki tried not to hunch his shoulders, but he did look away from her. “Loki,” she said, her voice soft. “Why do you turn away from me?” He knew what he was supposed to say. “I am sorry,” he said dully. “I should not have hidden the truth from you.” How did you realize, he wanted to ask. Was it too perfect, too good? “That is the last thing that concerns me right now.” She reached out and touched Loki’s shoulder. “We nearly lost you.” Loki said nothing. He did not see what there was to say. “The spirit stalking you was draining you,” his mother went on. “Drawing on your life force and, when it was strong enough, your magic. When Thor found you, you had barely enough strength to sustain your body.” “Thor found me?” Loki said before he could stop himself, turning toward Frigga. Her eyebrows were furrowed. “He was the one who realized something was wrong,” she said after a long pause. “He was adamant. Eventually, your father investigated, to indulge Thor, and unmasked the deception. It would not say where you were, but Thor had already gone to your rooms, guessing that it would need you close by.” He remembered Thor pleading with him to stay awake. So now Thor, too, knew him for a weakling and a liar. Loki wanted to shrivel up. “Oh,” he said. His mother’s expression flickered. “We have all been worried sick waiting for your recovery,” she said. “Destroying the spirit seems to have helped, but–” “Destroying?” Loki said. “Not banishing?” Frigga gave him a long look and then said, “your father was very angry. It suggested that…” She drew an unsteady breath. “It suggested that you were dead, and we to blame.” “Of course you aren’t,” Loki said, too tired to put much feeling in it. “I should have seen that you weren’t well,” Frigga said. “I knew something was wrong but I decided not to press it–” “Mother,” Loki interrupted, “it’s not your fault. I freed it. I kept the secret. I was weak enough–” She blinked. “Weak enough?” Loki fell quiet and looked away. She said nothing for several moments. “Spirits are deceivers, my darling,” she said. “You must know that. They will say whatever they must to hold the attention of their victims, and keep them snared.” Little liar, the shadow whispered in his mind. Loki bit his lip. “I listened.” “Listened to what?” Frigga asked, her voice suddenly sharpening. “What did the fiend say?” Loki held his tongue but his eyes burned. He closed them, hoping that would keep any tears from spilling out. “Nothing,” he said. “Nothing important.” “It seems to me it may be of some importance.” His mother took a deep breath. “Why didn’t you ask me for help? Or your father?” It didn’t matter, did it? How much worse could his shame be? How much lower could he sink? “I knew you would be angry,” he said. “And it would only prove…” He trailed off, and then forced the words out. “It would only prove how worthless I am. As a prince. As a son. I know...I know I’m a disappointment. I wanted to prove that I could deal with it on my own. But I couldn’t.” Loki twisted away from her and hunched his shoulders. Frigga was silent, but he could hear her breathing, suddenly unsteady. “Is that what it told you?” She sounded a mixture of anguished and angry. “That you are worthless? A disappointment? That could not be further from the truth–” “It’s all right,” Loki said. “You don’t have to lie to me anymore.” “Lie to you!” Her voice rose sharply. “I have never - you are my son, Loki, and I love you. How could you believe…” “It’s just obvious,” Loki said. “What do I have that Thor doesn’t? I’m the spare. And not even a very good one.” He closed his eyes. “I think I’d like to be alone.” He thought by the sound she made in her throat that she was going to object, but she only said, “we’re not done talking about this.” “I don’t have anything else to say,” Loki said emptily. You are the flaw. You are the fault along which the stone splits. She’d coddled him, trying to make him something more than what he was. It wasn’t her fault it had failed. “I love you,” Frigga said again. “More than you can know. Will you believe that?” “You have to,” Loki said. “You’re my mother. You didn’t get the choice.” “That’s not how it works,” she said. It felt like he was drowning. “I want to be alone,” he repeated. It was several moments before he heard her sigh and stand up, moving away in a soft rustle of her skirts. He slowed his breathing, yearning for the oblivion of dreamless sleep. Eir woke him and inquired after his state, both physical and, with more delicacy, mental. Loki told her honestly: he was weak but not in any real pain, and mentally he felt like himself. She probed further on the latter, but Loki gave her nothing more. He regretted saying as much as he had to his mother. She wasn’t there this time, nor Thor, nor Odin. Of course not Odin. The shame...his shame must be great. How many people knew? What had they told the court to explain Loki’s absence? As soon as Eir left he went back to sleep. Despite how much time he’d spent unconscious under the shadow’s parasitic attention, he was still exhausted, deep in his bones where it felt like it would never leave. The next time he surfaced it was to the sound of an argument. “--didn’t hear what he was saying, Odin.” “I am certain. The creature is gone; there is nothing left that could be clinging to him. Eir would know if there was.” “He called himself worthless. A disappointment. Claimed that I was lying when I tried to tell him otherwise, and that I only love him–” Frigga’s voice broke off with a sharp intake of breath. “That I only love him because I don’t have a choice. Tell me that does not sound like madness.” Madness. So now they thought him mad, too. “Frigga,” his father said slowly, “this sort of creature cannot...alter thoughts by force. And destroyed, it cannot possibly have any hold over Loki’s mind. Anything he said…” “Oh,” Frigga said, her voice soft. Loki curled up tighter and bit his lip. “It might have amplified them,” Odin said, and his voice sounded heavier than Loki could remember hearing it. “But the thoughts were already there.” “Norns,” his mother said, after a long pause, and it sounded shaky. Now look what you’ve done, hissed the shadow’s vicious voice, but now only in his head. You’ve made her weep. He shut his ears, but he could not shut out the touch of a hand on his shoulder, when it came. “Loki, my son,” said his father’s voice. “Will you look at me?” He did not dare disobey. He turned his head to look Odin in the eye. His expression was grave, the lines around his mouth seemingly a little deeper. “I am glad you have returned to us,” he said, though he didn’t look glad in the least. “Mother told me that you freed me,” he said. “Thank you.” An odd flicker passed through his father’s eye. “I should have seen sooner that you were...troubled.” Troubled. What a kind word. “It isn’t your fault,” Loki said wearily, as he had to his mother. “I chose to hide it from you.” “Nonetheless,” Odin said. “I am your father. It is my duty to notice these things, and address them. To keep you from harm.” You are a weakling who cannot take care of himself, Loki heard, and wanted to flinch. “It should not be,” he said in a small voice. “You have other duties to see to. Many - many matters that need your attention.” “Not least the welfare of my sons,” his father said, a little more sharply, and Loki did flinch then. Pain tightened Odin’s face though he cleared it quickly, and Loki wished he had controlled himself a little better. “Loki…” “It’s my fault,” Loki said. “No one else’s.” His father was quiet. His eye turned from Loki and he looked into the distance. “Creatures like this...they can cultivate the worst thoughts a person has. Sap their strength by nudging someone toward their fears and hurts, and feed on the despair that provokes. What they say may...may feel true, but that doesn’t mean it is.”


05/13/2022 04:56 PM 


Summary: “Running away from something, Red?” Frank asks, thumbing back the label of his beer bottle before taking a swig, leaning back on his sh*tty bar stool. Red smiled ruefully, turning to him. Of course he was. They both were. Frank and Matt have a one-night stand a month before the collapse of Midland Circle. Frank digs the devil out, but it soon becomes clear pieces of him stayed under the rubble. Notes: So, I got myself into writing another series because I'm stupidly gone for this ship, anyone relates?This story involves some serious mental health issues, including Insomnia, Suicidal thoughts, suicide attempt, medicine abuse, depression and others. Be advised! I wanted to explore some more of Matt's suicidal tendencies during s03 and defenders, so here it is.This will be a 4 work series, all one-chapter works.Happy reading! TW's:Panic attacks, insomnia, suicidal thoughts, suicide attempt, overdose, depression, hospitalization, some violence.     We thought we knew these sidewalk cracks by heart but even they have altered in our absence, branching out on their own. - Coming Home, Vern Rutsala   When Frank hears about Midland Circle, he’s walking home from a vet meeting at Curt’s, still sore with injuries from the fight with Billy and Agent Orange’s torture. It’s not even a choice. Before he knows it, his feet are carrying him to the closest library. Looking for information on water ducts, abandoned railroads, undergrounds maps of the city old enough for the ink to start fading and the paper to yellow. It’s not until twelve hours later that he finds the Devil’s bloodied, corpse-like body slumped by the river, smooth rocks digging into his bruised face. Frank doesn’t allow himself to acknowledge the heavy, suffocating burn churning in his chest at the sight of him - more bruises and blood than skin, chest barely moving -, and instead takes his vitals, runs his palms over his battered frame to make sure he could move him without risking further injury, mind settled in mission mode. It’s when Red suddenly wakes up, gasping and whispering for him to bring him to Clinton Church, that Frank sees her. A silhouette, a cut-out paper shadow mocking the impression of a woman Frank had seen through his scope once, a year or so before. A woman he saw bleed out in Red’s arms. She disappears before Frank can make sense of what he saw. He has more pressing matters at hand. Matt Murdock is not dying on his arms. So he takes the kid to Clinton Church, running calculations and tactical moves through his head - the medical apparel he needed to find, where he could find a doctor that would keep their mouths shut. Who could he threaten into getting him something or the other, who he could steal from - always bad guys. Father Lantom is not as old as Frank first imagined and he’s strong enough to help him put Matthew’s skinny, bleeding body into the orphanage’s infirmary. One of the nuns tries to call 911, but it only takes a word from the Father ( it’s Jack Murdock’s son, he said) for her to drop the phone. Frank brings in supplies. The nuns do what they can. He grew up here, the small nun, Maggie, tells him. In the orphanage. Frank nods. He doesn’t take his eyes away from the kid the whole time. She wants him and Red gone, but she takes care of him. They swear all the others to secrecy and it’s as good as it’ll get. I know who you are, the Father says, a week later, and Frank is yet again staring at Matt Murdock’s undisturbed, lifeless frame. Skinnier than when he first got there. I can not say I agree with your actions or even understand them, but I can only thank you for bringing him here safe. Frank offers little back. He isn’t sure why he did it. He just never considered the thought of not doing it.     It’s two weeks of daily visits from Frank before Red wakes up. At one moment he’s entering the room of a half-dead man, at the other, he’s watching him stumble and fall from the bed, gasping I can’t see, I can’t see, weakly in the Sister’s arms until he goes limp. After he helps Sister Maggie put him to bed, observing the other nuns hovering around and helping clean his wounds and change his bandages, Frank remembers the day at the bar, months ago. Before David Lieberman came after him. Before Madani’s involvement and Billy’s betrayal. Before William Rawlins. Before Midland Circle. He had been coming home from the construction site he had been working at under Pete Castiglione’s name when he stopped at a bar. It wasn’t something he usually did. But that day, the song from the carousel grated louder in his ears than the others and Maria’s voice was an echo of Hey, sleepyhead. There’s plenty of time now that you’re home. At a bar in Queens, he met Red. “Lost, Frank?” he had asked, swirling a glass of scotch in his hand, a small smile in his face. Frank had considered him only for a moment before he found himself a seat by his side. “I should ask you the same, you’re not in the Kitchen,” Red - Murdock - had chuckled tiredly, eyebrows raising in agreement. He downs the rest of his drink before knocking on the table for another. Frank gestures for the barman. “People haven’t heard much of the Devil for a while.” “And they won’t be,” “Huh,” Frank hadn’t asked. Maybe he should have. He had seen, even then, that something was eating away at him. Instead, he ordered a beer and another double for the auburn-haired man. “Running away from something, Red?” Frank asks, thumbing back the label of his beer bottle before taking a swig, leaning back on his sh*tty bar stool. Red smiled ruefully, turning to him. Of course he was. They both were. They had ended on Matt’s apartment, hours later. And Frank f***ed Red long and good into his sh*tty, blood-stained couch and didn’t think of the hollow hiding behind his ribs for a while. And when he thought Murdock couldn’t possibly take any more, panting and oversensitive as he was, the man straddled him and rode him like he was made for it, with a fluttering chest and shuddering gasps. For a while, Frank had hugged him in his bed. Spooned him from behind and held him tight. Murdock had tensed in his arms, but soon went pliant, allowing Frank - and himself - that moment to bask in human warmth and intimacy against their touch-starved skins. “Thought you were too Catholic for this kinda thing,” Frank had joked, and it wasn’t a lie. And Matt, he laughed, Frank had liked the sound enough that it scared him. “I’m not too good at being a Catholic,” he had answered, before his chuckle tempered down into a sigh. “It’s almost dawn.” “You got somewhere to be?” Someone, he didn’t say, remembering how Nelson and Murdock had dissolved, how Karen now worked somewhere else. Do you have anyone? Matt had gone quiet. Stiff under his fingers. “No,” he had whispered back, “nowhere.”       The next time Murdock wakes up, Frank is there, sitting by his bedside. Red is a bit more aware of his surroundings when one of the nun’s help him drink some water. He’s scarily thin and pale, his head doesn’t twitch side to side as Frank was used to seeing. “How are you, Red?” He doesn’t talk, staring straight at the ceiling, seeing nothing. Unlike the last time he woke up, he wasn’t trying to touch his ears. Just looking at nothing. Sucking all the noise around him like a black hole. Matt looked blank. Like he wasn’t even there. “Was she there?” He asks, finally, in a hoarse whisper, in what seems like an hour later but could have been only minutes. “I don’t know,” but he does know who Red’s talking about. He didn’t think it was possible, despite the reports of Daredevil and an unidentified woman being trapped under Midland Circle. “I thought she-” “She did,” Matt swallows thickly, somberly. “They brought her back,” he whispers, something like dread tainting all the blankness from before. “They brought her back and she was all wrong.” Frank’s heart stutters in his chest. Because as much as he’d like to unpack all that’s built inside that statement, it’s not what matters now. “What were you doing there, Red?” “She didn’t let me leave.” “ Bullsh*t,” Frank growls, pushing his feet into the ground but not making a move to stand up. Red doesn’t make an effort to acknowledge him, staring straight ahead, avoiding. He probably wasn’t even sure of where Frank was, and wasn’t that a sobering yet terrifying thought? “Bullsh*t, Red.” Silence stretches thin until it snaps and Red opens his mouth. And Red speaks. When he’s done, Frank stands up suddenly, the small pile of books falling from the nightstand to the floor. The feeling of unreality lasts for a mere second before he stomps away from the orphanage’s infirmary. His chest heaving in strained pants, furious, raging. He stomps away. Away from Red. If the Sister is surprised by his sudden hurry to leave, she doesn’t let it show. If anything, she looks resigned. She had said it before, everybody leaves Matthew. “He needs a friend,” is all she says, folding some donation clothes by the church pews. “He’s not in a good place,” yeah, no sh*t. Her eyes stray to the hallway Frank just strode away from. “And you’re the only one here.” “I can’t be that friend, Ma’am,” his voice is way more strained than he expected, it leaves his throat in a hoarse murmur. She gives him knowing eyes, hidden behind indifference. “Something more, maybe?” Frank just shakes his head. He can’t. If he closes his eyes, he can remember how pink and purple neon shined against Matthew’s skin. “Just... if you need supplies,” She nods, Frank ignores the disappointment that radiates stronger than it should in a frame so small. Her eyes... her eyes were familiar. “We have your number.” Frank walks away. Red’s words against his hurt lips, spilling into his bruised, mottled skin, they echo. Get stuck in his head. Repeating again and again until he can’t hear them anymore, just the movement of his lips. He dreams of him, asleep in his bed. Frank caresses a hand through his auburn hair and Red smiles. And when Frank’s about to leave, Matt’s mouthing those words, the same words he said that night, in between silk sheets, with Frank’s love bites blossoming on his neck and chest. The same Goddamned words.     It’s a month later when Daredevil - the fake one, because Frank knows the altar boy would never... he just couldn’t. He didn’t have it in him. And then, Wilson Fisk is exposed and arrested once more. A week later, Frank sees Red on patrol. He’s wearing all black and fighting off five, six people at the same time. When three more show up, Frank jumps in. He doesn’t even doubt himself for a second - clean slate, and all that. He covers fire for him, keeps to his rules, shoots kneecaps and elbows and steers clear from heads. The moment they get a reprieve, Red is on him, snarling like a feral animal and pushing him away. “Red-” “Get away,” his voice is down to a growl, and an unbidden shiver works through Frank’s guts at the sheer force of his glare. “Or you’re getting hurt.” And Red does it himself, brutal and efficient. Red doesn’t make a sound, he’s a blotch of ink moving in the flickering lights. He fights like Frank’s never seen him fight before. Except, he thinks, that day on the roof. And Frank... Frank can’t keep up with him. For the first time since he met the Devil, he can’t keep up with him. Not while carrying the armory he has on him. “Red, just wait-” But he disappears. Like a shadow, and Frank can’t follow him. The only trace he leaves behind a hand-print in blood on a wall.     That week, Frank runs some reconnaissance. He settles, belly down, three buildings away from Nelson, Murdock and Page’s new office. Watches through his scope as Nelson puts up their new plaque. Right then, Red seems fine. He laughs at someone Nelson says and Karen pats his shoulder with a fond glance their way. Red turns to her, smiles sweetly and pulls both of them for a little group hug. Red shakes his head with a little smirk to something Karen says, he seems fine. Red flinches away from their touch before leaning closer. His suit hangs loosely off his frame, he looks... tired. Skin-deep though, he puts on a show for his friends. He seems fine. Frank sighs wearily and the Devil tilts his head subtly, dangerously, towards the direction of the rooftop Frank lying on. Red seems to consider something before smiling again towards Nelson and walking inside. Frank leaves, hissing out a curse under his breath.     Red is being careless. Reckless. More than he usually is, which Frank never thought was possible. It’s almost like he’s tempting his God to come down himself and end him. Frank knows a little bit about that - the edge you can’t shake off, walking straight towards the barrel of a gun or maybe staying behind in a boat about to blow up. But even in the peak of his self-destructive bullsh*t, Frank wore body armor. Red’s wearing pajamas and staying out almost all night, at all hours of the night. Kid was a danger to himself. It’s proof to how he’s exhausting himself that, one night, Frank manages to catch up to him. “What are you doing out this late, Red?” “Go home, Frank,” he’s getting tired of this cat and mouse thing. “Come on, stop that,” he chides, carefully, voice low. “That ain’t me and you know it.” But Murdock just tilts his head, “I really don’t,” Frank grits his teeth. Maybe he deserves that. “Look, you wanna talk about it, we can talk.” “I don’t wanna talk, Frank,” he rebukes coldly. Walls so high up around him Frank can barely see what’s behind. But his fingers are trembling, his whole body shaking tiredly. His nose is bleeding, he moves with a limp. “I don’t know what you want, but it certainly isn’t me, so go.” “Cut the sh*t, Red,” he breaks in, last drop of his patience long gone. He steps forward into Matt’s space, who tries stepping back only to find a wall. He’s out of his game. “You think I haven’t seen it? You’ve been at it at all hours of the night, every night, you’re past burning that candle on both ends-” “I don’t need your patronizing bullsh*t-” “And that candle’s gotta burn on, Red. Long after tonight.” Red’s whole frame goes still for one moment, just long enough that Frank’s hackles go down and he thinks he’s finally gotten through to him. But then, suddenly the kid is pulling him close, both hands fisted in his shirt, with such ferocity that he stumbles slightly before finding his footing. “It’s none of your business.” “Yeah?” It hurts more than he’s willing to admit, so instead he grabs onto him too, fingers digging into his (skinny, bruised) upper arms, reaching up to tear the mask away from his face. “What about Karen then, Red? Nelson? Is it their business?” Red’s stutters, his hands loosen before his grip tightens. “You catch your death out here, you piss off the wrong guys, they’re gonna pay for it too, Red, you know that, don’t you?” Murdock shoves him away, taking the mask with him, eyes wide, breathing shallow. Frank almost takes it back, seeing the full-body tremor that wrecks his frame and remembering that Wilson Fisk and the fake Devil wasn’t too long ago. That Red probably spent day after day wondering if he’d wake up to news of his loved one’s deaths. “Red...” “Get the hell away from me, Frank,” he whispers, the decibels rising just above a breath, croaking exhausted. Frank thinks he’s never seen him this defeated, this tired. Red steps off the side of the building and disappears. Frank doesn’t try to follow.     He does follow him a few nights later and it’s too easy. Red’s out of his depth if he hasn’t noticed Frank. He finds a spot behind the huge neon sign, hoping it’s buzzing masks his heartbeat or smell or whatever it is Red uses to recognize him. It’s four in the morning and Murdock should be done in, but despite the scarily deep circles under his eyes he’s restless, head twitching left and right, pacing in circles, rubbing his palm through his face occasionally. Frank settles down and observes him through his scope as he goes inside his bathroom and comes back a few minutes later - showered and snug under thick autumn clothes. Red paces some more before tilting his head towards the table and just... standing there. As if he was mulling something over in that busy head of his. Frank watches him reach out a hand for a bottle of prescription pills on his coffee table, taking three and swallowing them dry. He clenches and loosens his fists in cycles, eyes closed and up to the ceiling. Murdock looks unsettled, fidgeting, twitching. His face set in a troubled, weary expression, eyes suspiciously bright in the neon lights. He had followed Red since eleven in the evening. He had been going at it for at least five hours, and still, he paced. It’s half an hour later when Matt finally sits down, staring straight ahead. Head tilting and twitching towards sounds far away, hands shaking. He doesn’t sleep. Frank leaves when dawn comes.     Thinking back, maybe it was the last straw, that night. He’d been observing Red for a while now, sometimes from behind the neon sign, sometimes through the scope of his sniper rifle. Red had lost weight, his milk-toned skin faded into a sickly ashen by the time night came and he was slacking off. The last few days, the Devil hadn’t noticed Frank following him from work to his nightly outings and that sh*t right there, that was worrying. It was only inevitable that Red, eventually, bit more than he could chew. But Frank’s ready when it happens and soon jumps into action. He keeps to Red’s rules for as long as he can, for as long as the a**holes they’re fighting let him. Once one pulls a gun to the back of Murdock’s head, Frank shoots his arm off with a shotgun. The blast clearly throws Red’s senses off the rails because he falters on where he stands, hands fisting a lowlife’s collar. The guy is quick to take advantage of Daredevil’s sudden distraction. Frank shoots his brains out the moment his knife nicks a piece of Red’s shirt off, right under his ribs. He thinks he hears Red’s shout of no!, but Frank’s busy taking care of the others surrounding them. He looses himself easily in it, in the blood he spills, in the blood that latches onto his skin as if finding home. And Frank never feels more at home than when he’s dipped in red. The last man standing. Red is on him the moment the last gang member falls to the ground, a hole through her tattooed neck. He’s torn off his mask and has his (tired, sleep-deprived) eyes burning wildfires into Frank’s skin. The moment Matthew’s hands dig into Frank, Frank’s dig into him too, bringing him closer, keeping him away. Wanting to appease his anger the same way he wants to watch it consume them both. “You piece of sh*t, you piece of sh*t, I can’t believe you!” Red snarls against him, faces too close together, baring teeth and curling lips. He burns into his reserves until the last drop is the only thing keeping him anchored to Frank, and Frank is the only thing keeping him from falling to the ground. He holds him tighter - feels like, should he let him go right then, Red would fall right through the floor and be swallowed by it. “You burst into something that has nothing NOTHING to do with you and you turn it into a blood bath!” “Yeah, you’d rather I had let that piece of sh*t stab you?” Frank snarls back, pulling him closer by his arms. Enough that he’s not sure what any of them would do should they get closer yet. He’s earth meeting fire, and Red’s embers were burning brighter than ever. “You’d rather let them go free than get the job done, Murdock?” “These people, they have families, they have kids-” “ For crying out loud, shut your goddamn mouth-” “That man you shot in MY arms, I followed him for weeks, he had a kid, Frank, he had a wife,” Red heaves out a weak breath and his eyes are too bright. “They’re better off without him!” Frank doesn’t know how he realizes it’s the wrong thing to say, only that he does. Matt looks about to cry or maybe fall apart, and Frank doesn’t think he’s ever seen him like this. It’s the lack of sleep, he thinks to himself. What else would it be? He grew up here, the Sister had said, in the orphanage. Murdock tries to attack again, but he’s weak. The former marine easily stops him, holding his elbows back, keeping his fists and legs away while letting his head thump against his chest. Matt snarls like a wounded animal, tries to kick him, but his muscles are quickly turning liquid and his bones rattle and quiver weakly in his attempts. “The hell happened to you, Red.” Stupid question. Midland, Elektra, Fisk, Poindexter, - whatever those pills were, the ones he took almost every night. Naively (obtusely, foolishly) Frank had thought he’d be better once he got back to his friends, started their firm again. He thought he’d be better once Frank’s brief presence in his life came to an end. But then again, Frank leaving had been anything but selfless. He’d always been quick to get lost in his head. Maybe that’s something he shares with Red. His fingers find a warm, wet spot on Murdock’s ribs when he tries to twist away from Frank. Bullet graze. “Com’on, let me patch you up.” “Let go.” There’s something in his face, Frank can’t call it by any name he knows. Layers and layers of too much, at the same time. He’s fighting the ocean, trying to set fire to it on his own. And Red... he looks like he wants to let the tide take him away. “Come on,” he says it softer, this time. Matthew doesn’t consent as much as he just stops fighting altogether, going deceivingly pliant against his hold. By the time they’re entering his apartment through the rooftop access, Red’s fiery attitude has been replaced by an unnerving, blank sort of avoidance. The bone-deep exhaustion is still there and it seems to weight more then as they get past the stairs. Matt looks done in. The bright orange of two different pill bottles catches his eyes as he makes his way to the coffee table, glancing at the name. Prozac, the almost empty one reads. Ambien, reads the half-full one. There’s another empty one, forgotten on the floor. “Having trouble sleeping?” He asks, as casually as he can get. The marine half expects it to be the thing that finally gets Red’s fury out once again, but no such luck. A shake of his head, more of fatigue than of disagreement, is the only response Castle gets. Red takes a first aid kit out of the bathroom and sits gingerly on the couch before taking off his compression shirt. Frank can’t help but hiss softly at the sight - Red’s a Pollock of bruises overlayed with cuts and scabs. There’s a splatter of drying blood along his neck and face - likely from the guy Frank shot. It’s not often Frank feels guilty for a kill. Not exactly for doing it, but how he did it. He shouldn’t have done it with Red holding the guy, close as he was, hands still on him. Not with the way the kid tied himself over knots over every little thing. He sighs, gets his mind to focus on the work. He sits facing Red, unsettled by not being able to read his face. Murdock is not exactly good at hiding his emotions and Frank’s good at picking people apart. But somehow, just then... It’s like the orphanage infirmary all over again. And Frank hates remembering that. “Look, Red,” “It’s been repeating since morning,” Matt interrupts, his voice oddly soft. Distant. Frank stops what he’s doing, the first stitch already done. “It won’t stop.” “What won’t stop?” Red looks... sh*t, he looks a bit feverish. Pale and clammy. It’s certainly not from blood loss, he hardly bled enough for that. There was something wrong. Just... off. Frank’s eyes involuntarily track back to the half-empty bottle of sleeping pills on the table. The empty one on the floor. He knew a bit about how messed up your head can get when you just can’t sleep. Frank had had nightmares for a long time after his Maria and his babies. Matthew’s eyebrows twitch and there’s a crack in him - a chasm splitting him in half from the inside out. Just deep enough under the skin that, should Frank be a little less familiar with him, he wouldn’t have seen it. “The radio,” he croaks out, tiredly. “Can’t you hear it? Two apartments down? No, three,” he chuckles a little, eyes bright. Frank sees the tears and freezes, stopping mid-stitch. “There’s a...” he laughs this time. “A stray adoption day at the park, like, like- like the saying?” Frank cuts off the thread, his heart thundering in his chest. “Red..?” His mind races a mile a minute. Is he drugged? Concussed? Something’s seriously off, something... “Like the saying, at the orphanage,” he huffs out another humorless, weak laugh. “The saying, they’d say... They said it was a safe place, until you found your forever home,” Murdock barks out a laugh, as if he finds it exceptionally amusing. Frank’s nauseated, but he holds him. Holds him because Red looks like he’s breaking and Frank’s afraid he’ll spill all over his stained floor and won’t be able to find the pieces of himself when it’s over. “Like puppies, you see? Like we were lost, stray puppies. You shouldn’t be jealous of the others, pup, one day you’ll find your forever home too,” his chuckling is nothing but a breath, now, a shaky hand coming up to brush the tears out of his face. “But we never did,” the laughter is all gone now. A small smile the only suggestion of it ever being there, cracking at the edges. “We never went home.” Frank has nothing to say. Wouldn’t know what to say. What could he, really? When there was nothing but Frank’s hands holding Red together there, in his blood-stained couch. The one Frank had f***ed him into months before and then left. Just... left. He thinks he had seen this coming a long time ago. It’s none of your business, he had told himself. Convinced himself. Too deep into the ocean to be able to make sense of it. “I’m tired, Frank,” his whisper is barely there when he finishes. “I’m really tired.” Frank nods. Tired he understands, tired he can fix. “You need sleep, Red, yeah?” He sticks the adhesive dressing over the stitched-up graze. He glances at the sleeping pills. “You want to take one before-” But Red’s back to his unnerving blank stare. “They don’t work,” he says, holding his stitched-up side. Frank’s hands hover over his shoulders, his lower back. Wouldn’t know how to touch him without breaking him more. “They never work.” The marine nods. “Yeah, I’ll go,” Red twists his head towards him subtly, softly. He’s not surprised, once again. Just like... yeah. “I’ll see you around, Red.” He averts his eyes the moment Matt opens his mouth. Frank thinks he sees him mouth something but the sound dies in his tongue before it reaches the surface. But he saw it, he thinks. He can’t be sure, he tells himself. Maybe it’s just an echo, his scarred head playing tricks on him. Maybe it’s an echo from that day, after the bar. Maybe...     “Bullsh*t, Red.” “I knew I wasn’t getting out of Midland Circle. And Elektra... she knew it too.” “You shut- shut your mouth,” “Told her we were gonna die and she said... She said, this is what living feels like,” Red closed his eyes. “I knew I wasn’t getting out,” he whispered, then: “I didn’t want to get out.”     Frank stops in front of a laundromat, two blocks away from Red’s building. If he looks back, he can still see it. He could still peek over his shoulder, and if he lets his mind drift, Frank almost feels like a schoolboy again. Wondering if that one boy he shared lunch with the day before is going to come to school, so they can share it again. He wonders if he should go back, now that Red’s voice faded among the noise in his head. He knows it will come back soon (it always does, Matt’s voice, for some reason, always comes back). Frank keeps walking. None of your business, his own voice whispers back to him. None of your business. And yet, he couldn’t shake off the cold in his bones. Something had happened in Red’s apartment, and Frank probably would never know or begin to understand what. It was like opening a box and hoping to find what you were looking for, and be greeted instead with a mangled imitation. Faulty clockwork. He walks for maybe an hour, mulling it all around in his mind, as if tasting bitter wine. Red, sitting alone in a bar in Queens. Red, admitting he had no one. Red staying behind under a collapsing building with that woman. Red’s sleeping problems. His reckless behavior, his confession in that small orphanage infirmary. Matt, chuckling like life is one big, bad joke, tears in his eyes. We never went home. The nun’s voice, coming back to him in a whisper, everybody leaves Matthew. Matt lying in a orphanage bed, looking so utterly at peace with his own words, conflicted with the reality in which he woke up to. I didn’t want to get out. He freezes before crossing the street. Frank doesn’t know what finally propels him to go back, he doesn’t know at which point did his walk turn into a run. Metal creaks and complains under his stomping feet as he takes two steps at a time, making his way up the fire escape. His pulse is booming like thunder inside his ribs, throbbing in his temples, threatening to give him a headache as he opens the door to the roof. He’s panting from his run, a palpitation in his chest when he finds the apartment silent. Murdock’s not in his room, he notices first. The two bottles he saw earlier on the coffee table are not there either. He must make a sound, something, because it echoes like a mewl from a wounded animal. Frank isn’t sure if the sound comes from him, but he moves towards the echo anyway, only for his feet to kick something in the way. The first thing he sees as he clicks the light switch on are two bright orange bottles. Both empty. But, they had been almost full before, hadn’t they? At least one of them had, he was sure- “Red?” A crash answers him, a small, cut-off cry he’s sure doesn’t belong to him. But he knows that voice, hears it in his dreams. Hears it whispering to him during the day - he follows it to the bathroom, clicking another light on. His stomach drops, blood running cold. Frank’s knees go weak and, in a second, he’s kneeling, holding Matt’s body in his arms as he convulsed, choking on his own spit and bile. Twitching and seizing non-stop, it didn’t matter how hard Frank held him close, positioning him sideways so he wouldn’t suffocate. It didn’t matter what he did- “Jesus Christ, what did you do?” his voice breaks, hands shaking where they grip Red’s frame, his skin ashen. Frank glances at the empty bottles, Prozac, it displays, Ambien. “What did you do?” He asks again, uselessly, eyes stinging as he holds him, waiting for the seizure to stop. Red’s drying, colorless vomit reeks of medicine. He calls emergency services, past caring if any of them saw through his beard and recognized his face. The words flow from his mouth in a syncopated rhythm and Frank barely hears himself over the buzzing. Nothing. Took pills, Red’s pallid, sallow skin. Prozac, his wide eyes fighting to stay open. Ambien, his hands, shaking violently, fingers spasming. Don’t know how long ago, Red’s auburn, bright hair against white tiles, colorless vomit, foam-covered lips. Male, about 30, the way he said his name, not long ago. Seizure, no blood in the vomit, Red’s little smile when Frank held him that day, twisted in silk sheets, soft against their scarred skins. “What did you do?” Frank asks again, voice sepulchral, begging, whispering. He does what the attendant tells him - checks the pupils (huge), his pulse (fluttery, too quick), his temperature (cold, getting colder), his breathing (shallow, fast). Frank holds the world in his hands as it falls apart silently, quiet as a grave. And what a terrifying thought it is. What a terrifying thought. He doesn’t know when he starts softly rocking, trembling fingertips caressing a cold cheek, his breathing ragged, shaky. His voice rather toneless as he mumble nothings into the empty air, ( you’re okay Red, I got you, I got you Matt, here with you, M’here with you) one finger digging into Red’s neck, pressing into a tripwire pulse. Too quick. Spasming like his muscles. Frank doesn’t hear the paramedics breaking down the door, doesn’t hear them until they’re right there, taking him away from him, asking Frank to step back, putting a blanket around his shoulders. He doesn’t know how much time passes before he stops fighting the paramedics holding him back and one of them is waving the bottles in front of him. Prozac. It says. Ambien. “Sir, I need you to answer me,” Frank nods, lethargic, clearing his throat before his eyes go back to Red. “Sir, do you know how many did he take?” “About... there was about half a bottle of Ambien. Not much of Prozac, maybe 10 pills, just- is he... is he...” is he breathing? Is he alive? “He’s stabilized for now, but we need to move him. We’re taking him to Metro-General,” The world is too quick around him. They have Red on a stretcher ( they’re taking him away), he fights the one guy still holding him back, but he’s weak. “His pupils are non-responsive,” a voice floats from his right, the man with a flashlight to Red’s eyes. “He’s blind,” he croaks out, licks his dry, parched lips. “He’s blind.” “Okay, sir,” the medic nods to another. “Tell them we’re bringing in a suicide attempt victim,” the words, they hit him, puncture his skin. A bullet in the dark where he can’t make sense of where it’s coming from. That they call him, Matt Murdock, brilliant lawyer, fierce protector, sweet, vicious Matthew, like that. Suicide attempt victim, they say. Frank can still feel his cold skin in his palms, as if he was still holding him there. Him and Matt, trapped between white, cold tiles, hanging off the edge, unaware that they’re in free fall. “Sir, are you his proxy?” “I’ll call him,” voice like gravel, bleeding like tar. “I’ll call his proxy.” “Does he have any family we can call?” But we never did. “No,” We never went home. “No, he doesn’t.”     Frank doesn’t think he ever got to go home, either. He planned to, craved it even. But home had never been his house, it had been Maria and the kids. And they died before he could remember how to feel it again. And after that... After that, Frank wasn’t looking for home anymore. He wonders if Matt had been, all this time. Nelson is on him from the moment he gets there, Karen hot in his heels. His hands shake when they grab his jacket only to push him. Frank barely stumbles. “What did you do to him?” He demands, eyes furious even while they threaten to spill like waterfalls. “Foggy-” Karen is shaken off the moment she tries to hold him back. “What did you do to my friend?! What did you do?” Frank doesn’t answer - what could he say? There was nothing to be said. Nothing that wouldn’t make it hurt more. He’s still numb. Still feeling the imprint of Red’s clammy skin and spasming muscles like a phantom limb. Karen must pull Nelson away, because suddenly she’s in front of him, big, cerulean eyes worried. Teary. “Frank, what happened?” He finds that he can talk. At least with her. “Found him,” She frowns, confused. “What?” “I found him,” Frank swallows. Can’t blink away the image seared into his eyelids, how his whole body went taut while he seized, how his own voice sounded frantic and broken as it boomed and echoed around the small bathroom. He makes eye contact with her. “I found him,” Karen looks lost for about a second before horror downs in her eyes and she gasps, taking a step back, hands covering her mouth. “He, he took pills.” “What is he-” Nelson’s voice fades when Karen sobs, still staring with wild, disbelieving eyes into Frank’s. “What’s he talking about?” “I thought, Jesus Christ,” her face looks pink when she cries, Frank remembers, for all the times she spilled tears for him. As if he deserved any of them. That same odd feeling of unreality claims him back, his skin is not his own, wet tiles touching his knees, seizing, shaking. “He said he was okay, he said- I gave him a therapist’s number, he said it was just insomnia, oh my god.” “Matt,” Nelson’s face contorts in a ugly, painful try at confusion and Frank’s dissociating mind focuses at it, for some reason. “Matt tried to-?” Frank averts his eyes when Karen jumps to hug Nelson by the neck, sobbing into his shoulder. His heartbeat a deafening roar in his ears, a painful stab against his rib cage. He sits down in the waiting room, with the two of them. The mismatched family Red had patched for himself but was never taught how to keep, how to hold it together. Frank feels cold tiles on his knees, sweaty, cold skin on his fingertips. And he knows that he’s still there, on that bathroom floor, holding Red’s life in his hands. He wonders if that’s how Matt felt, when he woke up at the church. Like he was still under the rubble, getting slowly crushed but never dying. Feeling bone after bone break, but never finding any peace.     Karen sits with him, later. While Nelson goes to Red’s place to pack up clothes for him. He’s out of the woods and stabilizing, we’re doing our best to clear out his system. A young, wide-eyed nurse had explained. He’s alive. Frank knows the shock will wear out eventually. He knows the next stop is anger. Some twisted Kubler-Ross bullsh*t. He’ll rage and he’ll want answers, but does he have any right to them? Does having a night with him entitles Frank to those answers? Does stitching up his wounds, finding him seizing in the floor? “Do you think... do you think it was on purpose?” Karen asks, her dulcet tone masking the dread Frank knows is wreaking havoc, deep down. Frank shakes his head. Does he think downing almost half a bottle of sleeping pills with some heavy antidepressants classified as a suicide attempt? Yes. Did Frank think it was on purpose, that Red wanted to die? He doesn’t. He doesn’t know. How could he? They know Red longer than he does. Now, if they know him well... That’s another problem. He knows Red’s lips look sweet but are infinitely sweeter once you kiss them. He knows his skin is warm like a fireplace. He knows his hair shines auburn-red in the sun and feel soft. He knows Red likes when you pull them, when you show him where you want him, how much you want him. He knows Matt’s waist is smaller than his ill-fitting clothes would lead you to think it was, and that it felt so breakable under his roughened hands. He knows Matt punches hard and is perhaps too quick to forgive and the last to give up hope. He knows the first and last person Matt Murdock will always hate and punish the most will be himself. He knows how he sounds when he whimpers in bliss, how his legs feel around Frank’s waist, how he’s shy about his eyes, how he fights like a dancer and hits like a boxer and always, always gets back up. And Frank knows that, should he ask his past self if he saw himself in this situation, his other would snort at his face. Should he ask his past self from days ago if he ever thought Red would pull something like this, he’d say no and yet he had seen it happening right under his nose. Because Midland Circle was it’s own proof and yet. “I don’t know, Karen, right before he... he cracked,” Frank shakes his head. “He’s been off, the last few weeks, I don’t know.” Isn’t that where it all comes back to? He didn’t know. He saw it but he didn’t observe it, not really. He averted his eyes, pretended it didn’t matter. He took for granted how much Red could take, took for granted the pain he saw, the struggling. He really doesn’t know. Maybe Red was half out of his mind and really just trying to sleep, maybe he has lost hold of himself, or maybe... Maybe he wanted to end it. I’m tired, Frank. Didn’t he tell him the same thing, roughly a year before? You ever been tired, Red? Frank feels the anger as it finally comes. Overcomes the shock with a snap, a rubber band pulled too hard, past it’s breaking point. Wasn’t it enough that he lost them? Didn’t he suffer enough, losing his wife, his babies? But then again, Frank had walked away from him. Not once, not twice. He walked away after the bar. He walked away from the church orphanage and the night before. When he saw it, when he knew Matt Murdock was way past his breaking point. Red hadn’t been looking good even then, sitting alone in the sh*tty bar stool. His knuckles were healed and his palms soft and Frank’s had never been rougher, full of healing sores and open ones after spending day after day hammering down walls. They had talked, and Frank had driven them to Red’s apartment and Matt had given him this small, almost innocent smile before inviting him in. He had looked pure and Frank had wanted to ruin him and so he did. And Matt, Matt had wanted to be ruined. And then he didn’t, in the end. He wanted to let Frank hold him. Hold his brittle, cracked parts together. But Frank had freaked out. And Red, he saw it. He noticed it even before Frank’s breath caught in his throat with guilt, panic, anger, grief. When he was leaving, Matthew didn’t look surprised or angry. It was almost like he had been expecting it. Like he never thought it could end any other way. And then, he had mouthed - said, begged - in a faint whisper, soft like it didn’t matter, like he didn’t think it’d be heard. He had almost begged- It didn’t matter. Frank had left. “I don’t know,” he repeats. Karen puts one hand on his shoulder. And he hears what she doesn’t ask. Why were you there? Why are you here? “I don’t know.” But he does.     Sometimes, Frank dreams he was there when Midland Circle collapsed. In some dreams, he’s outside, watching it explode and the blast is loud enough that he can’t hear himself over it. In others, he’s under it with Red, and he’s holding his hand as he pulls him, tells him to go, get the f*** out. Asks him why, why, why. But Red always answers the same way, always says the same thing. Frank has repeated it so many times, whispered over and over in his head, that he barely hears it anymore - just sees the movement of his lips when he says it. This is what living feels like. But sometimes, he says what he did when Frank was hastily putting his clothes on, leaving soft silk sheets and a naked, quiet Matthew behind. The same thing he had said the night before, when Frank left him in his apartment after his breakdown. But still, Matt’s just mouthing it. Red would never say that out loud, his own voice whispers back. But he did, that day. He did say it. Frank just chose not to listen. Everybody leaves Matthew. In the waiting room, Frank thinks Matt had been asking for help in the only way he knew how. And if that’s the truth, Frank had seen it but ignored it, and let him fall. In some dreams, Frank is the bomb. He’s the one thing that traps Red under the rubble. He’s the overwhelming deafness of the explosion before concrete comes crumbling down.       When Red wakes up, like months ago, Frank is there. It’s almost like they’re trapped in their own, f***ed up loop. He’s there to witness the surprise in his wide eyes, the opening and closing of his mouth in stuttered gasps as tears track down his face. It takes away all his doubts. That surprise. The tears. Red didn’t expect to wake up. Frank’s stomach twists in anger (nausea, grief) as he stands up and goes to the door, calling a nurse before going after Nelson and Karen. He didn’t - couldn’t - stay. When he leaves, he doesn’t look back. Afraid that Red will be saying the same thing again, the same words. The same goddamned words that would have made all the difference, should Frank have listened to them.     The next night, Karen calls him and Frank finds himself sitting in his van, staring at Metro-General’s front. The anger from before has faded slightly through the course of twenty-something hours. “Can you stay with him?” She had said, like she was asking him to watch her dog. Like we were lost, stray puppies. Frank curses, hidden behind a sigh. Shakes his head and pinches the bridge of his nose before staring at the flaking white paint under the big, red neon sign of the hospital. He takes the small, overnight duffel bag he brought with him, prepared for any occasion. It takes some effort to get his heart rate down. Combat boots hit the front door’s threshold before he’s even realized he’s moved. Karen and Nelson look like sh*t. Frank wonders if this will be the last straw for them too. If this is where Karen finally gets away, where Nelson finally gives up on his friend. Can’t be easy, Frank knows that. God knows what kept Curtis coming back to him, what kept Karen coming back or even the Liebermans. He wasn’t one to question much, at least not on a good day. Now Red - there wasn’t a single thing in his goddamn world Matt Murdock didn’t question, challenge or defy. Death, apparently, being the most prominent one of those. “Just... be careful, F- Pete,” Karen corrects herself, sighing and passing her long, manicured nails through her hair. “He’s not...” She looks at Nelson, helplessly. The blonde shakes his head too, that same pained, torn expression from the day before. “Make sure he doesn’t try to choke himself with his own IV,” he croaks out, coldly and Frank knows it’s none of his business, but he dares hope Nelson works through the hurt, the pain. Because if Karen leaves, Matt may close off, get sadder, quieter or angrier. But if Foggy Nelson left? Frank thinks that would be the last straw. Murdock turns his head away as soon as Frank enters his room, chest rising a bit raggedly. He’s still drowsy but the nurses warned that could happen. That had he taken a bit more than what he did of Prozac (they estimated between five to seven pills), he may have survived, but he’d most definitely have lasting sequels - motor coordination impairment, hearing loss, something named RASP, not any of it good things. That had the paramedics taken a bit longer to get there or Frank to find him, Red would have likely suffocated in his own spit and vomit. That the cardio-respiratory arrest he went in when he got to the emergency room could have killed him, should it have lasted mere seconds more than it did. Frank lets his bag drop to the ground by his feet and watches him. His slow-blinking, his shaky hands, his still pale skin, blue veins like spider-webs along his arms. Stark against an old, silvery scar by his elbow. Knife wound. The former marine sits down with a heaving sigh. Karen had told him earlier Murdock was put under periodic suicide watch, which meant a nurse would be checking in frequently to make sure he was alright. All the angry words he had left him in a blink of an eye. They would come back soon enough. “Brought a book,” he offers, quietly. If Karen’s research was to be believed, the cocktail of sleep deprivation, Prozac and Ambien would be enough to get Murdock’s senses a bit haywire. And as much as a wicked part of him wanted to punish him for his actions, for the sh*t he just pulled, Frank refrains from it. “Not going to give me a talk down?” Matt asks in a hoarse, phantom-like whisper. With all those tubes, pale like the sheets he was under, like the tiles Frank had found him. “Figured your friends got that covered,” and it’s not a lie. Curt would say another talking down is the last thing the kid needs right now. If the goal is feeling like sh*t, Red had that part handled. If it’s making him feel guilty, realize the extent of his actions, Red was most certainly thinking about it already. “Ever read Proust, Red?” “Yeah,” Matt looks at him a bit amused, although he doesn’t smile. He seems too tired for that. “Is In search of lost time supposed to make me feel better?” He asks and this time he sounds teasing. “Well, he did say happiness was beneficial for the body,” Frank shrugs, a small smile in his face. It doesn’t erase where they are but it’s almost like he could just... pretend. Just for a while. The heart monitor beeps steadily. “He’s the father of existential crisis, Frank,” he huffs out a snort at that, watching the artificial light as it touched Red’s damaged, cloudy eyes in a haze. “Brought poetry too,” Matt doesn’t say it but Frank can see it in the little tilt of his head, the curiosity. It fades as he sighs, tiredly. “What did you bring?” He didn’t actually know, Leo had been the one to tell him it was good. He checks out the cover. “Mary Oliver,” Frank’s hands scrape against his jeans as he settles back, Murdock twitches towards the sound, laying back on his sheets. “Do you want-” “Please,” he says softly. Frank nods, and presses his feet harder against the ground. Just so he doesn’t forget where he is. He blinks a few times, eyes on the heart monitor before going back to Matt’s steadily rising and falling chest. “I go down to the edge of the sea,” he starts, voice made of thin, breakable china. “how everything shines in the morning light, the cusp of the whelk, the broken cupboard of the clam...” He maybe reads to him for an hour or two. Frank barely feels time as he measures it with the sterile smell of the sheets, the soft rustling of pages, the feel of a soft paperback cover, Matthew’s tender breathing. It’s rawness dims with every word, every verse. “What dark part of my soul shivers,” Frank isn’t sure when Matt’s breath turns tremulous, or when his own voice strains in a husky grind. It’s just the words, Frank’s voice, Matthew’s breathing, the white sheets, the heart monitor. He can almost ignore where they are. Almost. A nurse comes in, not long after he finishes Every Morning. Red seems to come slowly out of his daze as a tray of mashed potatoes and other unidentifiable food gets dropped on his lap. The fragile truce snaps in a deaf sound, and Frank watches him turn his head down to his tasteless dinner, eyes turning away for all the good they do. Red’s rather well-trained in avoiding glances when he can’t (shouldn’t be able to) feel them. Frank can’t say he hadn’t seen coming what happens next. “I didn’t try to kill myself,” he murmurs into his (plastic) fork, curled around himself as if saying the words are a sharp knife of their own. Maybe he didn’t set out to, but he didn’t mind if he did. Maybe he wished for it, the same way Frank had wished most mornings before he started pulling his life together. “What were you trying to do then, Red?” He carefully swallows any resentment or anger back, any grief. Not the time. Red keeps playing with his food. The childish gesture would be amusing - endearing even, if not for the IV, the monitor, Red’s shaky hands, the nurse that came to check from time to time. “I wanted to... I just wanted to sleep.” I’m tired, Frank. Yeah, Frank knew tired. He knew not wanting to wake up, too. “Look, Red, you gotta heal,” he says, voice a deep rumble, low enough not to set his senses off. “these kinda things, they leave wounds. They make us... make us bleed, right? And thing is, sometimes, sometimes you don’t even realize it, ‘cos you’re so neck deep in the blood, yeah? You’re fighting the ocean one bucket at a time, and that sh*t is tiring as hell. You gotta take those wounds, and you gotta let them scar, you kno’? Better than to leave it open, bleed out, yeah?” Don’t make me find you like that again, an unbidden, choked-out voice crawls from the depths of his mind. Don’t do that to me again. Matt is quiet, in the wake of a revelation Frank never made. Maybe he heard it, anyway. “I don’t know how,” he finally admits. And it’s okay, because Frank hadn’t known it either. Sh*t, he was still figuring it out. Having Curt, though. That right there made all the difference. Matt suddenly sags deeper into his pillow. “I didn’t... want to die.” But he didn’t mind not waking up either. Some part of him, probably, had wished for it so hard, so loud - took over the remaining drops of sense from his sleep-deprived head. Frank breathes through the sudden rush of anger, unable to trace it back to Red or to himself. Angry at the idiot for doing this sh*t, angry at himself for not seeing it. Angry at Nelson and Karen who saw him every day and never noticed sh*t. But then again, Matt Murdock had been hiding for so long, he didn’t even know how to come out of the shadows on his own. Repressed, shackled-down anger comes like a punch to bruised ribs. Clawing at his throat like Ahab stabbing Moby D*ck, only to get tangled in ropes and dragged by his neck into the sea. “You don’t do that, Red,” he growls out, earning a mildly surprised glance from the younger man. “You don’t do that your friends, sh*t, you don’t do that to them,” his voice is suddenly thick, hoarse. Frank almost stops talking, if only to hide the weakness bleeding out in his tone. “Now you listen to me, ‘cause I’ll say it once, you listening? Your life is not yours and you take your goddamn hands out of it,” hisses out, sharp like a blade, and he sees it slide right through him, makes him bleed all over white sheets. Yet Matt’s face barely flinches. “You take your life, Red, you put that on Karen, you put that on Nelson, you tell me you love ‘em but you take that from them, you wound them!” You wound me, you tear me apart, says his heartbeat, the loud ringing in his ears. Haven’t I lost enough? Why do you want to go, too? Frank’s selfish, terribly, horribly selfish. He’d come and go as he saw fit, and somehow believed Red would always be there, open arms and all. Some f***ed up, self-entitled bullsh*t part of him thought that Matt and him would inevitably, one day, find each other again - be it in the middle of a fight, as allies or enemies or lovers in a bed. Matthew, he turns away with his stoic expression crumbling to shreds. That blade stabbed him right through where Frank had aimed and it was too late to claim it back now. Red looks pained, muscles jumping like he’d rather run far, far away than stand a second more listening to what Frank’s got to say. And that’s just another thing he can’t fix, just another thing he caused that he can’t fix. Frank had been there. Spent months sleeping with a gun under his pillow. He’d wake up sometimes looking for Maria, for his baby girl, his baby boy, and he’d think maybe... maybe he could, you know? Thought he didn’t owe nothing to no one here. And Red, he knows all that. There’s nothing Frank has to say about it that he doesn’t know. He’s just... punishing him. Tearing the wound a little wider. And that’s not what he wants. That’s the last thing he wants. “Just... ask for help, Red,” is that so hard? He almost says. As if he doesn’t know who he’s talking to. As if Frank had any right saying it. “Ask for what you need.” Matthew’s chest shudders and Frank wonders at how hypocritical he is, saying this sh*t. Sister Maggie had said it herself, people always leave him, she said. He could use a friend. And Frank, the first time Matt had asked of him what he needed... He left. He just left. Maybe that’s why Red doesn’t. He doesn’t expect it to be granted, so what’s the point? Looking at him, his hands twisting into the sheets surrounding his frame, his eyes blinking rapidly and owlishly, teary and unable to hide it, Frank thinks the dam is finally about to break. For one moment he waits with bated breath, thinks Matt’s going to ask. Talk. Anything. Just ask, Red, he thinks, just ask. But he doesn’t. He doesn’t say a word.       Frank goes home feeling the texture of his skin in his palms, from where he held his shivery arm before leaving. The smell of his hair. Matt had looked for a while like he wanted to say something, ask something. Looked like it was tearing him apart not to. Frank had seen it and maybe Matthew knew he did. He wished he had just said it. Help me, he didn’t think he’d say. But, maybe something small, like, read me more, or maybe, if Frank’s feeling bold and hopeful, hold me. And wasn’t that just it? He had said it, once. Almost something like it. Like help me, and hold me. And his eyes, his eyes had said it all, too. Ask me, Red. He would’ve done it in a second. In a f***ing second.


05/13/2022 04:52 PM 


Summary: “You stick with me, Red,” Frank drops his voice down to a whisper, “I got you.” Frank and Matt deal with the aftermath of the attack at the Bulletin while planning on how to move forward. Notes: Hi, there! We're getting to the end of this series, and this work, admittedly, has been one of my favorites to write. I'm a sucker for angst, if it's not clear by now. SEE END NOTES FOR TRIGGER WARNINGS! (Contains spoilers!) Poems and excerpts taken from (in order of appearance):November by Raymond P. FischerAnd the word for moonlight is my name by Jai Hamid BashirLoss of memory by James LanglasLady Lazarus by Sylvia PlathVery many hands by Aaron ColemanForgetting by Joy Ladin No. 30 "major character death", No. 31 "trauma" and No. 5 "forgotten". Happy reading!     November; the eleventh month of the Gregorian calendar. The last month of autumn in the Northern Hemisphere.   May I be blind whenever June clouds pass; Never lie down in sun-warmed meadow grass, Never smell clover; my voice grow harsh and thin, And next November leave me dead in sin.   BLOOM   This mouth is a wound from where I’m learning how to love.   With mid December comes unforgiving cold and merciless noise. Winter parks and Christmas fairs open, stores play Christmas’ songs from nine to five and Matthew can only allow it to flood him, drag him to drown into it as he sits in the cot by the broken window. He sighs at the sound of Frank assembling his gun for the sixth time. They had been easy to ignore at some point, but now each click echoes around his head like a gunshot. His head’s been getting better slowly. It took him a week to improve from the simple flu and two days of Curtis coming and going to reassure Frank the fever was not due to an infection and that Matt’s immune system has been compromised for a while due to poor nutrition and stress. And stress hasn’t been lacking. Fisk, and now he remembers enough of that name that his fists clench with the mere thought of it, is tearing Matt’s life apart. Not long ago he heard an APB on his name, considered armed and dangerous. There was someone using his symbol to kill people and now Daredevil was wanted for murder. A shoot to kill order was issued on Frank twenty-four hours after the whole Bulletin ordeal. Nine people died on the attack - including one that, according to Frank, was the man who shanked Wilson Fisk -, several were hospitalized and the man had escaped custody somehow. Matt opens his eyes at the sound of Frank disassembling his gun again. “Frank,” a grunt, “Frank, it’s the seventh time already.” “You been counting?” Matt stands up from his place perching at the window to sit down on the (uncomfortable, flea-bitten) couch. “Hard not to.” Frank only offers him another grunt. Puts the handgun together and drops it on the table, leans back on his seat and crosses his arms. “Past time we planned ahead, Red.” Yeah, Matt had been thinking the same. Running wouldn’t get them anywhere, but - “You should go, Frank.” A second. Frank’s heartbeat stops for a second before it returns, booming powerfully against his bruised ribs. Matt can feel his stare burning holes through his unguarded eyes. “Excuse me?” At the sharp-edged tone, Matt’s hackles raise. “This isn’t your fight-” “What do you mean, it’s not my fight?” His voice climbs up several notches and so does his temperature, Frank’s muscles tense and ripple. “Fisk is my problem, I’m responsible for this mess, you shouldn’t have to-” “Ah for crying out loud, thought this Catholic guilt martyrdom fest bullsh*t had been knocked clean outta your skull-” “Don’t change the-” “What, Red, you want me to walk away?” Could you do that, he asks him in another lifetime, could you walk away? “Yes! That’s exactly what you should do!” “And you’ll fight that guy in the Devil suit, weighting half of what you did a month ago and with your skull crocheted with wire?” His tone is mocking and it hits him in all the wrong places. Matt’s palms sting when he slams both down against the table. “You could have died!” He exclaims at his face, his own heartbeat mingling with Frank’s until it’s impossible to tell either one apart. “And there was nothing, nothing I could have done to stop it!” The marine’s heartbeat falters before he too rises. But Matt won’t give him the chance to push and prod and bend him. He needs to understand. “Fisk found someone to kill me, Frank. Someone better, faster and what do you think he’ll do if you stand in his way again?” “I’m not the one who dies, Red.” He growls, crowding into Matt’s space. Fast heart rate slows right down. The level of self-control of this infuriating- “So you get your head on straight, because I don’t care what bullsh*t you’re agonizing over right now, we’re doing this, you’re not doing this alone, you got that?” Matt inhales and doesn’t let go. Frank steps and only then he exhales, when the air is slightly less Frank and he can breathe properly. “This ain’t on you, Red.” A hand raises - he almost gravitates towards it before holding back. Frank eventually lets it drop by his side. He should know that Frank wouldn’t do it half-way, even when it came to taking care of Matt, getting him back on his feet. Had never been one for half-measures. And yet, it still seems he thinks Matt’s worth the time. Not like this, Red. He sits back down, unperturbed by Frank looming over him. Since a week or so ago, they’ve been mostly ignoring what had happened, ignoring the implications in Frank’s words, refusing to voice the unmentionable. “It’s like,” he exhales brokenly, “every piece of information I try to make sense of, it doesn’t fit. It’s like reaching for a broken cup to try and glue it together, but finding that most of the pieces are missing. I can see most of the fragments, I don’t know how it looks like when they’re together.” Frank nods, as malleable and open as a solid wall of bricks, giving nothing away. “Any leads?” Matt tilts his head up. “One,” he can mostly sense Frank’s eyebrow curving up. “The man who made my suit.” Frank stops for a moment, his arms cross in front of his chest. “How good was that copy, Red?” Matt feels the devil smile through his teeth. “It was identical.” The marine stops, head slanting to the side as if considering him, something in his face. His heartbeat changes, his temperature rises, blood pumping faster in a rush. Frank suddenly snorts, all the tension leaving his shoulders. “It is good to have you back, Red.”     Frank checks his gear as quietly as he can, leaving Red to his meditation thing. Sig, couple of knives, a smoke grenade because regular ones are bound to f*** up Red’s hearing. Prepares an extra getaway duffle with a lot of ammo, because he can almost count on a sh*t storm when it comes to Matt f***ing Murdock. Makes sure to shove some of the redhead’s clothes and pills and the cream for the fading bruises around his neck. A crumpled piece of paper from a week ago catches his eye. He had already memorized both the addresses scribbled down in there, repeated them until they echoed with his kids’ laughter and the never-ceasing gunfire. Frank’s mind is a battlefield and he’s the last man standing on it. At least, he thinks, eyes straying back to auburn hair, it used to be. He worries the paper between his fingers, eyes going over the same phone number in the back. He wasn’t here for me, Frank, Karen had said between sobs, splattered in blood as she pointed at the corpse slumped in the ground. Jasper Evans, the man who had shanked Wilson Fisk. And the bald a**hole had known. Had known Karen would find him, that she’d bring him in. He had known. It had been a stupid move, what he did. And he was still glad Red had been completely wiped out to notice Frank being gone most of the next day after the attack. He had twenty-four hours to get Karen and Curtis to safety before he went to the address he was supplied with and killed the six people waiting for him inside. He traces the phone number again. Shakes his head but doesn’t immediately throw the paper away, once he crumples it for the second time. It could come in handy. Maybe. His eyes stray back to Red. It’s been getting harder to stop himself from staring, these days. Specially now, that he knows. Knows what his lips taste like, how they move against his, how he grabs like he’s terrified you’ll let go of him. He sits down and watches and waits.     Red insists on wearing a black cloth around his head like a goddamn sock, but Frank doesn’t do much besides ruffling his hair teasingly. Matt only gets stuck once, during the ride. Frank wonders if he realizes it still happens. He’d just suddenly stop whatever he was doing and be very still. It wasn’t like his usual dissociative episodes, Frank isn’t sure if he’s just listening to something or lost inside his head. He thinks maybe there’s familiarity in his state. Like a man sitting in the corner of a safe house, a forgotten black guitar on the corner, the memory of Lisa’s giggles when he tried teaching her- Heartbeat must change. His smell - something does, because Red’s eyes snap open, his ear gravitates to his side. Frank has to drag his eyes away from the soft crease of worry between his well-defined eyebrows. Still not as sure as he once was, but focused. Ready. His grip changes around the steering wheel. Telling Red off for listening to his heart would be too much like acknowledging the fact that Red, clueless like a newborn fawn or not, always knew what was going on inside. It was a massive tactical advantage, now that Frank thinks of it. Perfect for manipulation if you know which words provoke the strongest reaction out of someone. But manipulation is not Red’s style, that’s for sure. “Will you be able to track ‘im?” He stops at a red sign only to find Murdock aiming a grin at him. “I forgive you for that.” Frank scoffs. “Right,” he reaches his arm behind him, shoving a hand into the duffel. “You’ll need those.” Throws the twin batons carelessly on Murdock’s lap. “Oh,” Frank keeps his eyes forward to avoid that face Red did - the guilty sh*t that seemed to scream you shouldn’t have at the same time it spoke of a gratitude that just wasn’t proportional to the deed. “Thank you.” He risks looking. There’s the face. Sh*t. He shakes his head. “Yeah, yeah, altar boy.”     Red wants to go barging in for answers once they finally manage to trace Potter back to a warehouse and Frank, unsurprisingly, has to hold his leash and knock some sense into him. So he drags Red to a rooftop, takes his binoculars out and watches. “This is a waste of time, Frank, I can tell you what he’s doing if you insist on recon-” “Shut up, Red.” He sighs at the put upon frown that answers him. Those f***ing eyes. “Yer nifty senses can come in handy, Red, not gonna lie, but we’re doing this my way or not at all. Don’t think I won’t chain you up again.” Murdock frowns. Translates the words to the memory before sighing. “F*** you for that, by the way.” “You’re welcome, Saint Matthew.” Red snorts softly at that and Frank can only pretend there isn’t a smile in his face mirroring the younger man. Reputation to uphold and all that. Frank’s good at waiting - so he settles in and watches, eyes keen on every figure passing by the place. Writes down a few suspicious car plates, photographs two or three people acting sketchy. Red’s sh*t at it. Meditating crap or not, Murdock’s jumping out of his skin by the time Potter finally shows up. He didn’t think it was possible for a guy to fidget as much as the redhead did, but Frank’s ready to shove a bottle of Xanax in his hands and beg him - again - to sit your goddamn ass down, for f***’s sake. He suddenly falls belly down by Frank’s side, his lips a breath’s width away from touching the skin by his ear when he speaks. “That’s him, the tall man. I think he’s bald. He smells like oil. There’s a woman with him, she’s packing heat, that’s-” Red tilts his head at the same time Frank catches the two kissing through the binocular. “Betsy’s his parole officer.” “Betsy?” “Yes, Fisk threatened to hurt her if Melvin didn’t work for him.” Frank’s eyes fall to his tensing knuckles. Red shakes his head in guilty dismay. “He got to him again.” “Any surveillance cameras?” Looks like a goddamn bird evaluating and picking a branch with the amount of head tilts he manages under a minute. “Not directly in the lot, but we might want to avoid the auto-repair shop across it.” “Right. How we doing this?” “Let me talk to him alone.” Frank stops. Stares. He’s more convinced every day that Red’s the human equivalent of a suicidal road chicken. “When he’s tied up and unable to crack your head open again, yeah, Red, sure.” “Frank-” “No, so you’re telling me this guy works for Fisk and has a girl to protect and you think he’ll listen to you? This Melvin, you said he’s strong, right?” Matt doesn’t back down. If anything, he seems more convinced that’s the way to go about it. “I can get to him, Frank, if we treat him like an enemy-” “That’s exactly what he is until he proves otherwise!” And maybe even then. Someone had to be cautious and Red clearly ain’t gonna be it. Frank bares his teeth in annoyance. “After the stunt Fisk pulled a week ago, you think he’s not waiting for you?” “We waited enough-” “Like hell we did, Red. You’re remembering sh*t but you still got a wire holding your skull closed, so don’t you f***ing start. We’re doing this my way.” Red’s skin is hot. Frank can feel it even from their distance. And his eyes- f***. “No,” he shakes his head, conviction in every movement he makes. “No, we’re not.” “F***ing-” “Frank.” “You have a f***ing death wish, Red? Is that what-” “I’ll go in there and I’ll talk to him, Frank.” “Ah f***.” “He helped me when he didn’t have to, he risked his life, Betsy’s life-” Frank throws his head back while still cursing, “when he agreed to it back then, and I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt.” Red aims his eyes straight at him, through him, stripping bare everything in his path. “I’m not letting him down again, Frank.” So he’s left to stare, again. Can’t stop staring. Can’t help letting whatever is blooming in his chest from spreading its vines all over his flesh and bones and taking over, consuming. This is what he had respected about Red from day one, from the moment he realized it wasn’t stupidity or naiveté, it was sheer, unwavering faith and unbelievable strength. Faith he refused to lose in the scumbags that would beat him half to death in the streets. Faith he refused to lose when a piece of sh*t tied him to a chimney and tried breaking him, showing him he was just as dirty. Hadn’t been ready for the truth, then. Now, he just lets it burn him from the inside out. This is Red, all of him. Missing chunks of memory and all, taking all of Frank in turn and not even realizing it. Stares maybe for too long, because Red’s out of sorts by then. Barely listens to his stammering - he reaches a fingertip to trace the shell of his ear, the peach-fuzz texture of his lobe. The soft sigh that leaves Matt in response - it’s too much. He clears his throat. “I go inside with you, Red, that’s final.” Matt nods, leans into the touch for a few moments more before squaring his shoulders back.     Frank sees it coming from a mile away. FBI storms the place, just after Frank shoots the locked gate and dodges having his head cut off with a circular saw blade - Potter is a big guy and abnormally strong and fighting him gets tricky once they’re surrounded. Matt takes care of that pretty quickly. He takes out three agents with a few well-aimed kicks and punches. Frank is careful to hit only legs and arms - there’s time to make a run for it, but the moment Red tries- “No!” Potter manages to grab Red around the waist with crushing force, the agonized gasp from having his broken rib jostled has Frank aiming his handgun at the man in a second. Nausea stabs him deep in the guts when Red is shoved head first to the table. “Hey, let him go!” No clear shot, if the guy as much as clenches the hand pressed against Red’s break- “Let him go or you die here, you hear me?” The tears give him a stop. Barely a second. “He’ll hurt Betsy!” The man exclaims, still holding Matt to the table, Matt with his fractured skull. Frank’s heartbeat speeds up more, his temperature rises. “Let him go, you piece of sh*t, let him go-” “Melvin,” a choked breath. “Melvin, don’t-” “He’ll hurt Betsy!” “Melvin, please.” The telling sound of a canister dropping. “Red!” He fires at the man’s right arm, precisely on the muscle so he lets go of Matt. A scream cuts through the sound of the flash-bang grenade going off, Frank jumps over to Red, throwing his body over his and hands covering his ears. His stomach does swoops at the thought of checking his head. “Hands in the air!” “Frank-” Matt drags himself up to run palms and fingers over his face, out of sorts, looking for injuries. “Frank-” “I’m fine, Red-” “You!” Frank turns over to the single agent up, hands trembling where he holds his rifle, young. “S-stand up! Show me your hands!” “Melvin,” Matt drags himself to the crying man in the corner, kneeling between the crates and boxes surrounding the plate. “You have to tell me.” “Don’t move, either of you!” Frank takes a step forward, covering both of them with his body, hands up in the air and gun pointed up to the ceiling, fingertips straight and away from the trigger. “Easy,” he growls, taking another step closer. Gotta keep his attention on him if Red’s getting what he wants. “Easy, kid.” “Don’t move!” “Melvin, please.” “Don’t you f***ing move!” Frank stops, but keeps himself moored to the ground. No one gets past him. “He didn’t tell me his name,” a muffled whisper comes from behind him, voice teary. “But he was FBI. Mr. Fisk- Mr. Fisk said they needed to catch you with the suit.” Footsteps approach from the hallways. There’s more in the way. “Red, now!” From a second to the other, all the lights shatter above him. Matt is body slamming him behind the safety of a few crates and wooden pallets as the agent starts shooting. Frank’s back to the wood, Matt pressing against his front, a hand clamped tight over his mouth. He makes a soft shushing noise, head tilting carefully up and Frank follow the direction, having a hard time taking his eyes away from the redhead. He catches the faint light coming from the back exit. He nods. “Please, he’ll hurt Betsy!” Potter’s cries echo through the walls as they make their escape. “He’ll hurt Betsy!”     Matt sits under the shower and lets the running water relax his tense, overworked muscles. There’s a bruise forming on the left side of his face, extending all the way to his temple. Matt senses it like a tense coiling of heat, burst veins like cobwebs spreading to his eyebrow and cheekbone. Apparently Fisk’s plans had changed. Trying to kill him turned into trying to disgrace him again - destroy the very symbol he worked so hard for. Frame him for being Daredevil - take away all he has left. Not according to Frank, though. He did mention once Matt had friends, but every time he tried going after a memory, as small or insignificant as it may be, he got lost in the fog. It’s there somewhere, suspended on the haze, holding its breath. Matt feels like a fool trying to touch the unreachable. Frank is back just as he’s finishing up. He had left Matt in the safe house and went back to follow Betsy. Make sure she’s safe, tell her to get out of town. His heartbeat is weird. Matt is so atuned to it, these days, that the shift crawls from his eardrums to his skin, his arms prickling in goosebumps. He pats himself dry quickly, eyebrows drawn in contemplation, tying the towel around his waist. His right side still feels stiff and weak sometimes, but he makes do. Frank is sitting in the living room when Matt steps out of the bathroom, heartbeat pounding against his chest, palms working together restlessly. He’s agitated, there’s heat coiling all over his frame as if he was about to attack, eyes following him when Matt steps into the living room. Frank’s heartbeat slows down but not by much. Matt claps his palms once, using the sound waves to orientate himself towards the duffle bag in the corner. Peruses inside for a pair of fresh clothes - sweatpants and hoodie, smelling of Frank. It’s only after he puts it on and the hoodie sleeves slide past his knuckles that he realizes they’re not his and almost pulls them off on principle. The ghost feeling of a fingertip caressing the shell of his ear stops him short of doing it. Matt sighs through his nose. Puts some socks on because there was a snow alert on the radio that morning and he could smell it in the air. Only then does he find a seat by Frank’s too-fast-too-wrong heartbeat. Knowing the best way to approach the man when he’s geared up helps. He tucks his elbows close to his body and stays quiet. Lets Frank know he’s not a threat or confrontational. If Castle notices his subtle try at communication, his body language doesn’t betray it. If anything, his muscles tense further, his heartbeat keeps pounding deafeningly loud, his blood pressure is through the roof. “Frank,” he tries, carefully reaches to touch his bicep. “What happened?” There’s blood on the soles of his boots, Matt notices, sniffing the air. “Frank...” The marine shakes his head, digs his elbows into his knees and briskly rubs his palms through the sides of his head. His breath hitches once, twice, but he never speaks whatever it is he’s got to say. Matt is just about to ask when the man suddenly leans back, stands up and stomps to the duffel bag. The one with his guns. “What are you doing?” No answer, predictably. The redhead jumps up too, his ribs protest at every deep breath. “Talk to me, Frank.” Frank slams a gun down against the kitchen table and Matt fights a flinch. He’s huffing through his nose, heart speeding up. Hormone levels spike, the bittersweet stench of adrenaline clogs the air - Frank is a bomb about to go off. “I told you. I f***ing told you. I told you we had to be careful, but you never listen to a f***ing thing anyone’s got to say, do you Red?” “Are you talking about Melvin?” No. Something else. There was something wrong. “Frank, what happened?” He takes a step forward, fighting the urge to fall into defense position when Frank’s trigger finger twitches. “Why do you smell like-” “Blood?” The soldier pulls something out of his jacket pocket and thrusts it into his hands, the coppery scent gets stuck to his tongue. He feels for it, the smooth polycarbonate drags across his fingers. The blood stains make it impossible for him to follow any traces of ink. “I don’t-” “Third body I found in the last week, Red. The third.” He takes a step back, brows furrowing down, presses his fingertips harder against the cards, can’t make sense of the ink. “Ask me their names-” “Frank, you’re not making any-” “Richard Murdoch, Matthew Ramirez, Louise Matthews, recognized any patterns yet, Red?” His stomach drops, blood turning cold. And Frank sees it and he’s vicious about it. Crowds into his space so Matt has nowhere to escape. “Yeah, got their eyes plucked out of their sockets while they were still alive before they were shot in the stomach, hands tied so they couldn’t do sh*t about it. This woman, Red? They left her in her kitchen. Her little kid found her. Her little kid.” Bile is corrosive like acid when it reaches his throat, coating the back of his tongue. He thinks maybe his pressure drops, because feeling leaves his fingertips and toes. “Fisk-” “Yeah.” Frank takes a step closer, Matt’s stumbles back when he reaches to pluck the three cards from his trembling hands. But he’s not done yet. Frank’s not pulling any punches and Matt feels like throwing up. “Now, you got a Fed dressed in your pajamas killing people, Fisk tearing your name apart, going after Karen, going after Curt, murdering innocent people to get you out hiding and you gonna tell me this piece of sh*t deserves a second chance, Red?” Matt’s mouth opens to answer but nothing leaves, his own heart hammering inside his chest, pressing against his sore ribs. “I can’t k-” “You’re goddamn right you can’t.” Cold seeps into his bones and Matt wonders if the air leaking out of his lungs is ever coming back, because suddenly it feels like there’s less oxygen in the room. He presses himself against the wall, chest barely moving. “This ends now. I’ll do it my way, my kinda justice.” Matt shakes his head once. Shakes it again more erratically and why isn’t there any air ? Why does his chest burn like it’s being torn apart? “No, Frank, you can’t, you can’t kill h-” “Yes, I can!” Frank steps closer, huffing against his face like a predator about to open his jaws and sink canines into his neck. “And I’ll kill anyone else in this town if it means you’re safe.” The air goes thicker, his heart squeezed tight in his chest and as fast as a hummingbird’s. And trapped between the beginnings of a panic attack and an elated sense of confusion, Matt feels like he finally understands Frank completely, if only for that moment. Sees all of him, the dark and the light, not fighting but constantly fusing. “Frank,” voice weak, his fingertips tremble when he reaches out, traces the bruised contours of his face. There are no words when he goes looking for them, still breathing too quickly, focusing on Frank. Bright like fire in front of him. “Frank.” “Shut up, Red,” had never heard his voice that weak, glass shattering wetly in every consonant. But his thumb comes up to caress Matt’s chin, his lower lip, his cheeks. “Shut your mouth.” Matt kisses him. It’s a conscious decision at first and then it’s not. It’s Frank’s lips, chapped and full against his trembling ones, his mouth hot and wet against Matt’s. It’s him swallowing all of that grief that was ever-present in Frank’s voice so it didn’t spill all over them both. It was Frank holding him up, pulling gently at his hair, a soft apology in each caress, in each peck. It’s tasting Frank’s pain in his tongue and trying to remember a time where he didn’t make sense. He hugs the man’s neck so he won’t let go, moaning faintly under his breath when the kiss turns deeper. When Matt can’t distinguish Frank’s heat from his own with his senses - they look like one and the same. His breath hitches when fingers clench hard around his hip, pressing him tighter against the wall. Frank pants into his mouth when their crotches meet. “Yes,” Matt whispers, begs, as he nods. “Yes, Frank, please-” And his voice is so lovingly wrecked when he murmurs by Matt’s ear, biting at the side of his neck, rolling his hips against his. “Goddamn you, Matty,” a particularly hard bite makes him yelp, “goddamn you.” “Please.” Frank doesn’t need much more convincing. Matt lets him take them to the bedroom and doesn’t think of anything or anyone else for some time.     Red dozed off eventually, back against his chest. He had filled up some but was still skinnier than he used to be. Frank had been there for every meal he couldn’t keep down - could trace them like braille over his slightly protuding ribs. It felt like an year ago that Red woke up for the first time in the cabin, unable to form words in a second and ready to attack in the next. Take me home, his voice echoes. Please, take me home. If he thinks too much about it, at some point, his voice and Matt’s mingle. It’s him, digging his fingers into that nurse’s arm, feeling like death when he brought him close. Take, me, home. But there was no home. Finds it in a small column in the newspaper - Kitchen Irish, Mexican Cartel, Dogs of Hell. He buries his lips in the smooth, velvety skin of Red’s neck, following lazily the dark red bruises decorating the side and falling like a chain around his neck and collarbones. His chest, the insides of his thighs, his hipbones. The contrast is like that of stars in a night sky - the old mottled bruises around Red’s neck had faded. Leaving behind some leftover hues of red, sickly green and yellowish - the love bites looking like little silhouettes of Mars or Venus, shining red among all that white. Stitches were about ready to come out, too, on the wound the Devil gave him. It felt wrong that Red’s body was so quick to erase abuse. That he took hit after hit after hit and continued there, standing, waiting for the next. There was hair very slowly starting to grow over the scar in his head, where it was bright pink and glossy. Fingers roam down to the deep scar above Matt’s hipbones and presses softly into the smooth texture, a grounding kiss. The skin was thin were it had knitted, almost paper-like. It was the worse one so far Frank had found on his body, while licking, biting and kissing him from his sinewy neck to the insides of his thighs. The wound had to be deep - the scar was slightly pulled inwards, like something had hooked in. Wonders if Nelson ever saw all of those scars. Or Karen. Thinking about that - about the three of them, he tries to build a scenario. Nelson, a put-upon frown that doesn’t manage to hide his worry. Karen, a compassionate attempt at stern reprimanding. You should take better care of yourself, Matt, she’d say. And he can see Matt clear as day, hunching his shoulders over with that guilt face he did, agreeing to everything not because he particularly had any care over his own state, but because he’d hate to have them worrying over him. Useless to think of sh*t like that now. Gets him thinking of Fisk, though, stomach twisting in his belly. Of Nelson. Of Karen, holed up in that church, waiting for a way to get out of the country. Curt, staying at a cousin’s home in Virginia. And Red, here, in his arms. With his come drying in him, with his marks spread all over his body. What the f*** is he doing? This is Matt. Matt who has an expiration date stamped on his forehead. Who dives into trouble the first chance he gets, who’s being hunted by cops, feds and scumbags alike. Priority was getting Red through this sh*t show alive, not whatever this was. Keeping Red safe meant taking out this Devil wanna-be before he gets to Matt, because the a**hole kept on coming. Fisk can come later. He needed to resupply, get in touch with David, ask about Louise Matthews and, maybe, give a call to the owner of the phone number forgotten in his duffle. Later, he wonders if it was the change in his heartbeat or his tapping trigger finger on the gentle dip of his waist that woke Matt up, nose still close to sweet-smelling skin. Matt stirs, humming softly before stretching like a cat, turning boneless in Frank’s arms before he squirms, rubbing his naked ass against Frank’s covered crotch. “M’too old for marathon sex, Red.” The fondness in his tone has no business being there. “No, you’re not.” Matt smiles knowingly but doesn’t push. Frank doesn’t let go though, finds that he can’t, nosing the freckles on Red’s most prominent cervical bone. Then kisses it - he isn’t sure he’ll ever get to do it again, so he lingers as much as he allows himself to. Matthew draws slow circles on the forearm trapping him by the waist, squirming at the feel of dried cum and spit between his legs. “I...” a soft, almost soundless chuckle, “I think I dreamed about my eighth birthday.” “Yeah?” “Yeah, I... Dad and I, we didn’t starve but we also didn’t have much money, you know? Food was definitely never wasted there. There’s this one time he manages a few extra bucks with a fight and he bought me a thematic cake. I never had one.” He smiles. It’s abstract, but he could almost remember how it looked like. “Lin was there.” “Lin?” “Lindsey. She was my friend.” Red chuckles suddenly. “I think she enjoyed it more than I did. It was Star Wars themed and she was obsessed with it.” Red tells him about it in whispers. About how she loved every single movie she could get her hands on, how they’d compete about who had memorized the most dialogues. About his dad feeling ashamed that he almost took a tumble and some of the frosting of the cake had stuck to the box. Frank holds him through it, one ear tight against his neck, listening for his heart, chin hooked over his shoulder. It’s quiet - like the eye of the storm, the silence after the gunfire. Lisa had insisted on having all over her birthdays with a different dinosaur theme from ages four to nine. God forbid Maria ever mentioned doing something else. Her giggles as she ran around the house with her plastic dinosaurs in hand, diving through the air, permeate every nook and cranny of his brain. Frank presses his lips softly to Matt’s temple, careful of his break. Moves away from spooning the younger man but doesn’t immediately get out, though. Stays there, hovering over Red’s spent form. “Frank.” He grunts. “Thank you.” Frank shakes his head. Standing up makes his skin rise in goosebumps, Matt’s own skin mirroring his. He’s tucking him into the blankets before he’s even realized what he’s done. Shakes his head again - Red’s got no f***ing reason- “Nothing to thank me for, Red.” The constant, familiar itch of anger poisons the softness of his afterglow. Red only blinks lazily at nothing, doe eyes lost. “Anyway.” Frank stands there, and Matt lies there and none of them move. His fingertips itch to reach out but the marine holds himself back. “Do you ever think about just... riding off?” Frank frowns, not expecting the question. “Just going away, not thinking about anything you leave behind.” “I have nothing to leave behind.” Is his first response. Red pauses, still unmoving. Either because he hears the lie in his heart or because he knows, just knows it’s not true. Not anymore. So Frank sighs. Gives in. “Sometimes, yeah.” “Yeah,” Matt smiles, the curves of his lips tinted in wishful red, the soft curves of his eyes disbelieving of the possibility of ever escaping. Ever getting away. “It’d be nice.”     A strange quiet takes over the apartment the next couple of weeks, while they lay low. Daredevil’s latest attack at the Bulletin and the Punisher sighting and mysterious eye-gouging murderer take over the news. They don’t leave often and Red takes in to checking the perimeter with his weird super senses and, for some reason, that gets Frank sleeping better at night. Most of his days, he fiddles with his police scanner - looking for word of people he had marked to be in Fisk’s payroll, FBI ops, anything the NYPD caught a wind of. Cops were apparently clean since Nelson and Murdock saved the day back then. Frank sighs at himself. Red is rubbing off on him, more ways than one. Although, the other ways don’t happen again after that night. Not for lack of want - they both orbit each other a few feet away, pulling closer as the day progresses without noticing. Frank’s a moon courting an impossible sun. Red is back to training, though, so there’s no time for them to suffer through talking and weird discussions. It happened, they both liked it, they both knew it, they didn’t talk about it. Simple. Frank is admittedly a bit worried at first when Red starts - building himself up to pull ups and push ups. He appreciates that unyielding strength of his (an immovable object, a fire you just couldn’t put out), but if there’s one thing Red’s no good at, is recognizing when it’s time to stop. Sh*t, look at all the things that happened to him and he was still kicking. Still hanging on to those high morals of his. Doesn’t matter that Frank found him half-dead with his skull bashed in, Red still had the strength to to have faith and hope and believe in people, when Frank, well, doesn’t. Even training, Murdock doesn’t last longer than an hour at a time. He doesn’t say it but he gets dizzy and exhausted fast. Frank would watch him across the safe house - he’d drag himself to a corner, guzzle down a bottle of water with shaking arms, eat a fruit or a bite of a protein bar and then he’d sit, cross his legs and go quiet. When he opened his eyes, minutes, sometimes an hour later, Frank could barely recognize the lost, messed up kid he brought to that shack. He’d go down, eyes dead - his arms would stop shaking, his shoulders would relax back and he’d start again with renewed vigor. Red would do it again and again until exhaustion finally caught up to him and he’d crumble by the bed and sleep for a long time. He gets used to being quiet around the place. Training took a lot out of him and Red slept five to six hours during the day. While he does his thing, Frank begins researching. Fisk’s immediate detail has to be it, no other way he’d get in touch with someone trained as quickly as he did. And after Melvin’s admission, well. Ray Nadeem’s face doesn’t surprise him among the files and pictures Micro leaked him. The thought of calling him, setting up a meeting to ask about the copycat is tempting enough, but Frank is resigned to waiting for the time being. He’s just going through the last of the files when a somewhat familiar face catches his eyes. Chiseled jaw, blonde hair, dead shark-like eyes. There was just something about it- Matt rises and jumps up so quickly Frank has no second thoughts when he immediately reaches for the gun in his pants, pressing it close to his chest, eyes checking all possible entrances. Bathroom, kitchen window, front door - no movement. But Red is still standing there, eyes focused and head tilted, whole body locked in defense. He either heard something or he’s in one of his flashbacks again. “Red,” he walks towards him, checks his breathing, his eyes. He’s calm, although alarmed. Frank doesn’t need more reassuring before pushing the redhead behind his body. “Where?” Bathroom, kitchen window, front door. Bathroom, kitchen - Red’s face. His furrowing eyebrows and the confused little twist of his lips. “Roof. Only one.” His muscles twitch, eyes go wide. “I know her,” he whispers, fingers suddenly reaching out to clench tightly to Frank’s sleeve. ”I know her, Frank.” A shift of red and black in the window directly across them and Frank is shoving Red behind him again, pulling the safety off. No way she got there from the roof, there was only one f***ing person he knew that could do that and he was standing right behind him. She steps inside the loft like a shadow spilling. Woman has a presence on her, the walls almost warp towards her. “Matthew,” a thick accented voice greets, her tongue curling around the double T. “You’re awfully hard to find these days.” “Who are you?” Frank’s eyes narrow. Red may not recognize her, but Frank does. Head may be a battlefield of gunfire and contingency plans and his kid’s laughter and Red’s soft voice but he remembers her. It gives him a stop, because that can’t be. He saw her bleed out on that rooftop through his scope, saw Red cry over her corpse. But then there were the initial reports of Midland Circle - Daredevil and an unidentified female trapped underneath. He tries to fight the nausea that comes with the thought. He saw her die. “The f*** you doing here?” But Matt is already stumbling forward and away, face a mask of confusion when he steps closer. Frank wonders if he feels the grief, even if he can’t properly recall it. “Matthew, why don’t you introduce us?” “No, wait, wait. I know you.” Her pretense drops for a moment, eyes calculating when she studies Red’s face, his body language, before turning to Frank. And by then, her gaze is a promise of death and not and easy one. She smiles, small and dry. “What did you do to him?” “I didn’t do sh*t-” “Frank didn’t do anyt-” Both stop at the same time. Red’s fingers close around his bicep, the muscle twitches in response. He stares at him, taking him in, the delicate curve of lips and light stubble. Lips he kissed. The surge of protectiveness almost destroys him. “I remember you,” he growls out, “on that rooftop with all the ninjas.” Her eyes cut sharp like a dagger when she finally stops staring at where Red’s palms were locked to him. The satisfaction is short-lived but Frank savors it all the same. Her face changes, like day and night. The way she looked at Red rubs him off, too - something between helpless affection and toxic, hungry possessiveness. As if Matt was the embodiment of salvation and the picture of meat that she was just dying to dig her claws in. “And I remember you ,” she smiles with little humor, “Matthew was awfully entertained with you back then.” “Was about to say the same.” “No, wait, you know each- Will any of you just tell me what’s going on?” The frustration bleeds into his voice but the girl and Frank are trapped in a conflict of their own. Her hands caress the daggers strapped to her thighs, Frank’s finger twitches against the trigger - but their weapons point down, Red’s presence a weighting on them both. “What happened to him?” “What happened to you?” He shoots back, she raises her eyebrows with a twitch of her head. “I thought you were dead.” Uses the moment to drag Red behind him again because he doesn’t trust the lady as far as he can throw her. “I was,” Frank’s whole body tenses, heartbeat flat-lining in his chest. He tries and fails not to think of Maria, of Lisa, of Junior. “I’ll ask again then, shall I? What happened to him?” “Would you stop talking like I’m not-” “Got his skull bashed in,” Frank rises in volume, “and you didn’t answer mine, the f*** do you want?” “Stop, stop, stop.” Red broke from his hold, taking three steps towards the woman before he froze altogether, his shoulders shaking. “I remember you. I remember fighting with you, you... you died, I held you-” her stance changes but it’s barely noticeable. Frank’s well aware she’s still a threat (probably never wasn’t a threat at any given moment), but something soft creeps at the corner of her lips. She reaches out to push a strand of red hair behind Matt’s ear, quiet fondness in her touch. Almost reverent. Red doesn’t lean into it but doesn’t run either and Frank’s guts twist. “You hurt me,” he whispered then, “I hurt you.” Her hand trembles where she’s touching him. “I don’t even know your name.” Her eyes find Frank’s, raw and desperately trying to cover it. All of her that felt inhuman before seems to melt away then. “Elektra,” she says, eyes still locked to Frank’s. “I heard you were missing.” Too much vunerability, her face twists in disgust at herself. Only then does Elektra finds it in herself to step away from Red and that’s about the only thing he can relate to. Frank can still see it in her eyes. She wants to kill him - do something about Frank being in Red’s immediate surroundings. He can’t say he doesn’t feel the same, and can’t claim to not know why they both don’t do it, the reason standing shakily between them. Their familiarity doesn’t stop there. He sees the way she looks at Matt - the hunger, the protectiveness, the helpless respect. “Take care of yourself, Matthew.” She jumps from the same window she came from, leaving them both there, standing, unable to say a word. NOVEMBER   There was a time when you thought things like that mattered. When you thought everything did.   He shoves the over-packed first aid kit into Red’s hands and the younger man puts it into the duffle as Frank power walks towards the black batons tangled with the sheets at the cot. “Frank, do we really have to-” Christ Jesus, this again. “Yes.” Red follows him like a duckling, still sporting those blushed cheeks against too-pale skin that Frank couldn’t bare looking at sometimes. He looks anyway, every damn time. “She didn’t attack us, she clearly could have-” “Ain’t up for discussion, Red, we’re going.” He reaches out a hand to stop Frank on his way to the ammo boxes stacked away close to the wall because Red had nifty senses, but was still f***ing blind and kept tripping on them. Fingers curl around his bicep. “Just, will you listen to me?” “Didn’t before, Red. Don’t figure I’ll start now.” “Frank...” his goddamn voice, Jesus Christ. Doesn’t need to look at him to know he’s giving him the f***ing eyes. “No,” he drops basic hygiene items into the getaway bag and kicks it out of the way, crowding into Red’s space with powerful steps. “This safe house is compromised. We’re not talking about this sh*t again.” But Red is good at grasping at straws. Spent a whole f***ing lifetime barely hanging on and he’s a pro at it by now. Even more now that he’s got cabin fever - desperate for any proof of connection besides the marine. “Please, Frank, I know her. You clearly know each other, I- she knows me.” More than knows if Frank’s got anything to say about it. Didn’t need to be close to know she was the type of girl that enjoyed playing the game as much as she liked winning it. The cat and mouse thing was her style. Manipulative to a fault. Just look at the way Red reacted to her - like a stray sniffing an owner. Made him f***ing sick to his bones. I know you, he thinks, selfishly, stupidly. “You stick by me, Red,” Frank drops his voice down to a whisper, “I got you.” Matt is still pissed. He can see it in the bullseye forming between his eyebrows. Frank steps closer, stares into the hazel-green of his eyes and reminds himself of all the marks hiding under those clothes. His mouth, his fingers, his bruises. He kisses his cheek chastely, slowly, nosing his temple when he stops pressing his lips to Matt’s skin. Holds on to that warmth he knows he won’t have close for long. “We can’t stay,” he enunciates, not as sure under all the solidity of his voice. Matt sighs and Frank doesn’t let him step away. Not then. Not yet. And there are those eyes again. All that light- “If something happens to you, I-” it dies down. Gets stuck in the cage of muscles spasming around his throat. Red takes a deep inhale that Frank feels overfilling his own lungs, his eyes wide. He steps back, every muscle in his body suddenly calling him to action. But he stays - stays to watch Matthew’s face fall, understanding flooding and creating rivers in the cracks of his anger. “Frank...” He shakes his head in response. He already said too f***ing much he can’t take back. Words just keep spilling out of him, these days. His chest feels flayed open. He needs back - back to before. Just him, the next target, the next mission. Not this. Whatever this is. Whatever Red is. He turns away from Matt, grabbing the getaway bag on the floor. Shoves an extra blanket in it before closing it. Red gets cold these days. “Let’s go.” Grabs what scrap of courage is left to look at him. Red’s face is almost serene, slightly dazed with solemn understanding. Frank thinks he preferred the anger. The anger he knew how to deal with. They walk down the stairs and leave Harlem.     Matt rubs his hands for warmth, presses his digits to feel where old cracks and hairline fractures had knitted his bones. Frank is quiet by his side, but his voice is all Matt can hear. And I’ll kill anyone else in this town if it means you’re safe. If something happens to you- He can’t tell where one neighborhood ends and the other starts, but the scents slowly become more familiar as they go. Smoke gives way to the tall trees of Central Park that gives way to Mexican food, coffee and alcohol. Chatter rises and so do faint sirens. Grocery stores and a Greek food restaurant and universities. Something that smells like childhood. Hell’s Kitchen. Besides his Dad, it was one of his only intact memories. It was difficult to track people besides that. Lindsey’s voice often got mixed and he can’t always remember what she looked like. The nuns all sounded the same, the priest (the good one) was surrounded by fog and the bad one... Well. Matt doubts he had any clear memories of him even before the injury to his head. Elektra... he can define the edges that separate her from the other women in his life, now. The one that smelled sterile like a hospital and the other one in the rain. Elektra was the soft voice in his ears, was the way he’d chant her name when she played with him - and she did play with him. She’d chuckle as she spread him out, coo as she made sure Matt knew he wasn’t in charge. That he was hers, body and soul. He can’t remember when her desires became his, our when his became hers. He does remember feeling utterly broken in her absence - faced with something she saw like a gift and felt like betrayal. He remembers fighting by her side and telling himself he wouldn’t let her come too close again. But soon he was kneeling, waiting for the clarity of her touch, the unburdening of letting himself be taught, guided. Matt figures he always liked himself better that way - when he was someone else’s. And in the middle of all that storm and chaos, right where Matt was taught to thrive, there’s Frank. Who feels more real than anything else in his head, solid and unwavering. There’s memories of him from before and after the injury and the fog. After he decided Frank wasn’t an enemy, and... When did that happen again? When did Frank became something between an ally and more? He sighs and tries to ignore the uptick on Frank’s heartbeat at the sound, the minute acknowledgment of worry. It twists the knife deeper - Frank worries. It should feel like something he should run away from. His finger sneak to his side, pressing against the finger-shaped bruises on his waist, the bite marks all over his torso, thighs and neck. Maybe it’s too late to run. The car stops. Matt steps out of it with a sharp inhale - desperate for air that wasn’t saturated with the smell of Frank’s skin, Frank’s hair, Frank’s clothes and the air that left his healing broken nose. It doesn’t surprise him that the fresh air makes no difference. Frank’s smell is stuck to him - it’s in the clothes he wears, in his hair, in his skin. He wonders if Frank would do it. Grant him that unburdening. Strip him away of the control he so desperately wishes he didn’t have at times. Elektra had bent him out of shape and broken him, but Frank... Frank would put him back together, wouldn’t he? He’d never leave him behind to pick up the pieces. Set him on fire and leave him to burn. And he wouldn’t have to hide from him, Frank’s seen all of Matt. He wouldn’t need to pretend like he did with- Karen. The name comes to him like a punch. It’s what Frank had said that day, to the woman who knew him at the Bulletin. “Karen,” he suddenly exclaims. Frank grunts in return. “Karen, it’s... Karen, it’s Karen. She, she was the woman in the rain, the one who helped me at the office!” It’s muddy, perceptions are tangled, there are thoughts and feelings he can’t put to context. “I didn’t meet her at school, I met her somewhere else, but I can’t remember where, I...” I can’t do this alone, he told her, I can’t take another step. And then she hugged him, didn’t she? You’re not alone, Matt. Blurry edges sharpen like blades. Her image carved like cut-out paper in the back of his skull. Only person besides Frank and Elektra that was actively part of his life that he remembered. Frank is quiet but there’s something weird with his body temperature. Blood pressure drops before it suddenly goes up, up, up. Not anger or frustration, something else. His heart goes scarily steady. “Frank?” “Yeah, that’s... She’s your assistant. I think.” “Oh.” Of course he knew. Matt keeps forgetting that Frank knows more that he lets on. It makes him wonder how deep Frank had been into his life before all of this. And he can’t bring himself to ask now. Not after what he said. What they’ve become - whatever that is. “C’mon, Red.” Frank helps him upstairs, the fog buzzing in his ears. No matter how much he tries, he can’t build up a timeline around Karen. Everything he remembers splintered, wrong, lacking.     “You sound like you’re meditating when you do that.” Frank raises his eyes to meet Red only once before turning back to his gun, checking the recoil strings. “Oh, yeah?” He asks, nonchalantly. “What does that sound like, sunshine?” He moves on to wiping the outside, making sure the bore of the barrel is clean enough. Chances another glance at Red when he’s putting the clip back in and assembling the gun back. He’s folded into a pretzel in the middle of the room. F***, he’s flexible. How far did that leg f***ing go, sh*t- “Your heartbeat slows, your breathing goes even. You almost sound like you’re asleep, peaceful.” Huh. Frank isn’t sure his breathing is even now, face twisting in calisthenics when Red folds into yet another impossible-looking position. Isn’t sure he ever sounds peaceful, either. Got war in his blood. Long before his family. He saw that in Red, too. A soldier wearing a civilian mask. A devil wearing a person suit. And right then, right there, Frank gets to see him free of the need for masks, brains knocked clean. The price of blissful ignorance. “Generalizing, you find something to focus on, usually your own breathing, and lets your mind stick with it. It’s basically what you’re doing.” Figures Frank’s own brand of meditation would include guns. He pauses. Watches Red make faces and clutch at his ribs while he keeps trying to get a tricky position right. “What do you focus on?” Matt blinks and stops altogether, tilts his head to study him in that unnerving way of his. When he speaks, he’s bluntly honest. “Your heart.” Frank halts, waits for the punchline. For something. “And that, what, brings you inner peace?” F***, he shouldn’t ask. He really doesn’t want to know. “It’s not that, it’s...” Matt turns his face away to think and Frank’s almost thankful for it. But Red’s not a quitter and he’s soon turning to face him again. “It’s safe.” Frank stares at him, unable to process what he just heard. And then, trying to find a catch. But there’s Red, who begged him for help and ended up with his skull bashed in. Who Frank’s been arguably holding hostage and hiding sh*t from. Who once bounced a bullet in his f***ing head, telling him Frank’s safe. “That’s f***ed up, Red.” The redhead smiles. “I know.” Frank shakes his head, turning away. Stands up already geared up for the discussion he knows is soon to come as he goes looking for his sniper rifle. Red’s been getting used to the new safe house the last few days but it doesn’t mean he’ll stay put when- “Where are you going?” Bingo. Frank doesn’t stop moving, his back to Red. Checks the rifle before putting it back in its case and grabbing it. Stands up with a sigh. “Gonna find a devil.” And an FBI agent, but Red didn’t need to know that part yet. Murdock stops, his silence saying a thousand things. Frank has to drag his eyes away from the last fading hickey over his Adam’s apple. They hadn’t done it again, besides the one night they got to Hell’s Kitchen and Red... well. Was f***ing angry and determined to show it. Determined to push until Frank finally gave him what he wanted - pushed him against the wall and kept him there until he begged. “Are you going to kill him?” “What do you think?” Can’t fathom how Red sticks to that sh*t anymore. Pain in the ass. Red suddenly stands up, fists clenched tight by his sides. Frank doesn’t want to but he will knock him back on his ass if he has to. “I’m coming with you.” “Like hell you are.” Frank scoffs, eyes instinctively jumping to the bright pink scar over his right ear. “You almost had your skull bashed in again the last time, Red, f***’s sake-” “I’m trained for this-” ah, f***, there he goes. Child soldier bullsh*t. “This concerns me, I’m coming with or without you.” Frank stares at him. F***. He opts for the other strategy. No amount of fighting puts Red down, it only incensed him. Got him invested.

єχρєяιмєитαℓ gιяℓ

05/13/2022 12:35 PM 

List of Fandoms

My fandoms include but are not limited to...Spy x FamilyMy HeroAttack on TitanUndertalePokemonThe Devil's A Part-timerNaruto13 reason whyVideo GamesTV showsHonestly any Anime but ask me if you wanna clarify 

maki rollkawa

05/12/2022 06:30 PM 

looking for someone to rp with
Current mood:  bored

hey im looking for someone to rp with whos either uninteristed in danganronpa or doesnt mind spoilders i tend to rp as kids or or aged down characters however i dont mind playing older characters too if your looking for nsfw people block me just i want nothing to do with it my rps tend to be darker so if your comfortable let me know your triggers before starting! 


05/12/2022 05:54 PM 


These rules are for the most part non negotiable, but if really need be, I may be able to bend some for the sake of plot or experience. 1• If any of my chara's die, they die across the board in all RP's they're associated with. If this does happen, and I'm currently in the middle of some I will try to wrap them up with whomever I RP that chara with. It is not often that a chara of mine dies but it is in everyone's best interest to be aware of it. 2• Absolutely NO god mode. It is unappealing and turns me off to any RP I do. I like interesting RP's and riding the edge is okay but I want to have fun, I come from a mild D&D background, so for me, it is more fun without immunity. Be advised.3• For the most part, my chara's only "date" one chara at a time, with the exception of ERRA and one other. If you're looking for no strings attached, ERRA is your best bet. Baptiste is my main and will let you know if he has feelings. Nijah is the innocent protagonist and is a gentle good soul, devoted to whomever he may be with. Nora is Nora. If you want to date a chara of mine that's already taken, be prepared for potential drama, after all this is RP, but some people get very hurt on here. If you want a real relationship that's different ask for my discord otherwise, let's have fun :)4• Para minimum, multi para preferred, novella only if you feel inspired to do so. 5• Dry RP's will be weeded out eventually. Be advised. 6• All my chara's with the exception of Nijah are darker themed, and still Nijah deals with real life problems. If you're not prepared, stick with Nijah, otherwise you may need to move along. 7• A separate point but one to add to number 6 is my chara's can have changed hearts, so if you want to play savior and save the "bad boy's" by all means, but it does not come easy and not guaranteed.8• I expect quality RP's. I am invested when I RP, and I thoroughly enjoy the experience, I cannot demand but I do ask you give your best when participating with me. 

💜The Masokitty💙

05/12/2022 04:03 PM 

Bar/strip club opening starter

The sun was setting and there was already a line of people wanting to come into the bar/strip club. Some of them acting like they were on crack but that could actually be the case. This was Sin City after all, the dangerous city that doesn’t have much security or police. No one can trust anyone around here, keep protection on just in case something happens. One of the many bars was called The Teasing P**sycat, a neon sign above the door with a cat wearing undergarments. Most people thought it was a joke bar but they couldn’t find themselves to leave after entering. Inside this ‘fine’ establishment was people setting up for the night, being of different races and genders.One of the workers was a short girl with cat ears. A mechanical tail protruded from her lower back as it swayed behind her slowly. She was bent over setting down a stool, she was wearing a black corset, black booty shorts, fishnet stockings and a black collar. Her hair was multi colored, a mix of purple, blue and pink ontop of the black. She peered behind her with her piercing red eyes when she heard athe front doors open. “We're still setting up.” She called out before swiftly and gracefully jumping over the obstacles to stand infront of the guest. “You just couldn't wait in line could you?" She teased.


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