You're a Shining Star

September 27, 2018:

As "Frank Castle" gets accused of more murders, Barbara Gordon is believed to be next on the list.

Various - Gotham City



NPCs: Gotham Cops, Diner People, Blacksmith Goons

Mentions: Luke Cage, Owen Mercer, Jim Gordon, The Blacksmith

Mood Music: None.

Fade In…

It has been three days since what the media is already coining the TCLEC Massacre. Frank Castle's name and face floods the news when not covering Hell On Earth 2018. First was TCLEC, then was Samantha Reyes, and then was George Tepper, the doctor who had been ordered to label Frank as a John Doe and then forge a fake DNR order. Zane had been taken immediately into protective custody, perhaps because he had been the one who exposed what Frank was doing.

All it took was Zane telling Jim Gordon that it had been Barbara who supplied him with the files on Frank to get his niece and adopted daughter saddled with two beat cops. They were Babs' new shadows, which really was starting to put a damper on her other work. They were good at their job, not crowding the Commissioner's daughter, but also not letting her out of their sight. The younger of the two — an officer named Jake Toredelo — had nurtured a small thing for Barbara; a little crush that kept him extra thoughtful about her, something she's sure her dad did on purpose.

It was almost nightfall by the time the three got back to Barbara's apartment. She was supposed to just pick up some stuff so she could be relocated to the safehouse for the next few nights, until Castle was apprehended. Her roommate Alysia was already staying with friends over in the East End. After sweeping the small two-bedroom unit, the officers were polite enough to wait outside the opened door to her apartment, giving her some space to move around to get her stuff.

In her bedroom, she grabs more than just some clothes. The first thing to go into her duffel is her Batgirl suit, and then it gets buried under underwear, bras, jeans, and sweaters. Bruce can give her shit later for not packing it properly, but she doesn't have time to get it into the foam-lined cases — and she definitely doesn't want to explain to the guys why she's taking three suitcases with her to the safehouse.

Since Frank Castle didn't shoot up the cops at TCLEC, Samantha Reyes, or Dr. Tepper, he knows that there's something else going on. He also knows that after he checked on Zane — police custody with the NYPD, not something he wants to do if he doesn't have to — Barbara Gordon is likely next on the list of whoever is setting him up. Clearly, since she nearly took him down, she can take care of herself against most things, but automatic weapons with no warning is something else. So Frank Castle is in the fear-swathed city of Gotham, a place that makes him itch. It would be good if he had some other way to hide his face, but he's fallen back on the baseball cap, hoodie, and jacket. At least the cooler weather suits his attire.

The apartment isn't so bad, except for the big windows looking into the living room… and both bedrooms. Then it's a question of where the best place for a sniper overlooking the apartment is, and that's easy to spot too, the apartment buildings opposite the bedroom windows are no good, so it's one of the commercial buildings opposite the living room. Too many for him to check in time. So it's the two cops who are the real problem. He doesn't want to hurt cops, but he's pretty sure that if he shows up asking about Barbara, he's going to end up filled with lead or in a jail cell. That's not going to happen either.

And so Frank Castle finds himself riding up an elevator toward the floor where Babs lives, his head down as he thinks about just how he's going to play this. The freight elevator from the garbage room opens up well away from Barbara's apartment, so the cheery 'ding' of the bell isn't going to warn anyone. He stalks through the halls, finally coming to a conclusion, and nods to himself. Hard and fast. No problems there. When he comes around the corner, it's Toredelo that he sees first, the young man just turning toward the sound of his bootsteps.

Frank closes fast, a left cross snapping out to bloody Jake's nose, and then a knee to the groin that drops him into a curling, dry-retching heap against one wall. Jake's partner gets a little softer treatment, Frank side-stepping the baton that the man quite-rightly draws instead of his gun, and slipping behind him. One arm goes around the man's throat, locked in place with the other hand, and then all Frank has to do is wait. Jake's too busy trying not to sob with the short-circuiting pain of the nut-shot to cry out, and his partner can't get enough air to keep conscious, let alone to shout. Frank lowers the second officer to the ground, then makes sure Jake isn't going to go making any noises by choking him out too. The whole thing is remarkably quiet inside Barbara's apartment, just a single sharp impact, two softer ones, and a faint scuffle of shoes on thin carpet.

And then Frank is nudging the open door wider, his hands out to his sides and empty. His words are quiet, rough, "Hey Red. You wanna get away from the windows." His dark gaze flickers over to the living room window, where he's pretty sure that he's out of the line of fire there at the door, but you can never be sure with a sniper.

Barbara hears it, the scuffling of feet, the sound of the bodies hitting the ground. She turns toward it, duffel bag dropping heavily to the chair in the living room. She can just see the shadows of the fallen Gotham officers on the ground, and then she looks up into the blunt features of Frank Castle. She goes for instincts, and the razor-sharp batarang is in her hand within a half-second of thought. Her stance shows a woman ready to fight if she sees one threat from the big Marine. "Are they alive? What are you doing here, Frank?" Her voice carries a slight quaver to it. The last few days, Babs has been wrestling with whether or not Frank has gone to that dark place she's feared. His suggested command is ignored, her focus too locked on Frank.

Frank looks to the razorang and back to Barbara's pale gaze, his eyes intent. "They're taking a nap." He looks away to the window, his eyes narrowing slightly as he scans the rooftops and upper floors across the street. "Red, you need to get away from the windows." There's a little more emotion under the words this time, a little more strain. As Frank glances between windows and Barbara, he starts to advance slowly, his hands still held carefully out to his sides, well away from any weapon. Then again, there's still a smear of Jake's blood on the knuckles of his left hand.

"Stay back, Frank," Barbara says as he starts to approach, and she steps back. "Stay back! I don't want to put you down, but I will." Her fingers flex around the razor, and she stares at him with those perfectly blue eyes. Hers bore into his, unafraid. She's dreamed about those eyes — those dark, deep, abyssal eyes. She can see it — that emotion that builds beneath him. "Why did you do it, Frank? There's good men dead, and Reyes — " Her jaw works. "Reyes made mistakes, but she didn't kill them. She didn't kill them."

Glancing behind himself a heartbeat, Frank growls, "I don't kill people just doin' their jobs, Red." And then his eyes go back to her face, "Come on… all that stuff you gave the kid," not that Zane is really a kid, but when he needs more protection than Barbara does, maybe the term isn't so far off from the Punisher's perspective, "you know I wouldn't do that shit." There might even be a little hurt in his voice, although with the gravelly tone, it's hard to tell, "I know Reyes didn't kill them, that's why she never made my list."

That's when Barbara hesitates, her fingers moving along the edge of the razor for a fleeting heartbeat. "Why are you here, Frank?" The words are whispered almost desperately, and her own raw emotion filters through. All her exhaustion and hurt and worry is impossible to hide.

Barbara is so fixated on Frank, she misses it. There's a small glint of movement from the building just across the way from her building — a building that has been mostly empty for several months after its foundation was found to be unstable. The Punisher may not have the ears of Daredevil, but he's already looking for it. While he cannot hear the sound of a weapon being stabilized on the window sill, he knows it's there. He sees it.

Frank doesn't even have to think, when he spots the glint of a scope out of the corner of his eye, that bit of movement. His unceasing approach brought him close enough to Barbara to leap forward, twisting as he does so that his back is toward the window. He's not wearing a vest under the hoodie, so he's just as vulnerable as Babs, but he doesn't hesitate. The leap is aimed not just to put himself between her and the window, but also to bear her down to the ground and out of the line of fire.

At this range, the bullets are going to arrive before the sound, even if just barely, and so the glass begins to star and shatter even as he reaches the woman, one round just clipping his side, tearing a hole through his jacket and his hoodie, but missing flesh.

The razor clatters to the ground just moments before Barbara hits the scratched and scored wood floors of her apartment. She can smell the old must of the old plywood subfloors through the thin slats, but it mixes with the smell of blood and sweat that comes with Frank bearing her down in a tackle. She curls under him, fingers grasping hard for his hoodie as she draws him in close against her, pressing them both into the floor as her apartment explodes into automatic weapon fire. Glass shatters from her windows, and then picture frames. The couch explodes into bits of upholstery and padding, and one random blast takes the leg out of her and Alysia's thrift store table.

Had she been any other woman, she might have been screaming in terror at the barrage of fire. Instead, she is overwhelmed by the flood of adrenaline and the sudden will to fight. But she doesn't fight Frank as he sandwiches her between him and the floor; instead, she's trying to get her brain to focus on the incoming fire. Where is it coming from, who is it coming from? She's going to find them.

"That's why." Frank's response might be hard to hear under the zing of bullets, crash of glass, and shattering of wood if he weren't sprawled out atop her, trying to get the both of them as low to the floor as possible. One arm curls up, trying to protect her head from flying lead, splinters, and broken glass. It only takes about three seconds to put thirty rounds into the apartment's living room, but Frank growls, "Stay down, Red," even when the gunfire stops. He waits a moment, then glances down at the young woman under him, "Building across the street. Used to be offices. Empty now. He'll be gone by now, unless he's waitin' for you to pop up."

Barbara's heart is thunderous in her chest, and she looks up at the all-too-close features of Frank Castle. Her limbs are trembling a bit as the high continues to course through her, and she shakes her head slightly at the words. "We need to get over there," she says breathlessly. "There might be some sign of this guy." Her blue eyes do not shy away from his, her hair a web of blood-like red across her pale features. She manages to catch her breath long enough to murmur, "So, it wasn't you, then." There's a dry, almost macabre humor there.

"Nope." Frank stays where he is a minute longer, looking over to the window, back to her, to the window, and then back to her, "Wasn't me." Most of his worst bruises have actually faded by now, although there are a couple of new ones scattered on his features. "I told you that's not what I do." Gesturing toward the door, he growls, "Stay low." His lips purse and his own dry amusement enters his voice as he repeats his earlier 'suggestion,' "Stay away from the windows." No other bullets have torn through the apartment, so apparently the shooter only had a single magazine, or they're waiting for targets to pop up instead of just spraying and praying. Frank gives Barbara's shoulder a nudge, and then shifts his weight off of her and starts belly-crawling toward the door, "You want to check, be my guest. Me, I think we get more from leanin' on your 'friend' Mercer. Finish this shit."

That drains some of her tightly held energy out of her, and she lies flat on the floor for a few heartbeats after Frank has shifted off of her. She glances to her duffel on the chair, and then around her gun-torn apartment. She grimaces slightly before she rolls up on her belly, and scoots along the floor after him. In the distance, sirens begin to wail and her heart tightens up in her chest. "You need to get out of here, Frank. I need to check on Jake and Willie, and then make sure I'm still here when they come. They will want my statement." She hears a low sound from under the couch, and Alaska's big, lamplike eyes stare out at her. That's a relief, too. She glances back to Frank. "Go to the library in Old Gotham. Wait for me there, okay?" Her mouth thins. "We need to talk."

Frank straightens up to his feet after he's out of sight of the shattered windows, not seeming particularly worried about either Jake or Willie. He does, however, watch Barbara close the rest of the distance to the door, and offers out a hand to help her up. "They're fine. Bruises, headache." Her suggestion that she stay in place causes him to frown harder, however, and he shifts his stance a little, "Red, this guy," it could be a woman, of course, but in Frank's mind it's a guy, "he's not gonna stop after one shot at you." Or thirty, as the case may be. With the gunfire now stopped, there's a nervous energy about the big man, an itch to be moving, to be doing something. "You wait around, you might give him that chance. You want to talk, let's go some place and talk. There any good diners 'round here? Nice quiet places? I need something to eat." And a place to bait a trap and find out who's coming after her, who's trying to frame him.

She looks doubtful, uncertain. She had been trying so hard to stay in Gotham, to stay out of the way of what's happening with Frank. But here she is again, drawn in close to him. Her breath comes out in a slow exhale, and then she nods a bit soberly. "Yeah, alright." She glances down at Jake and Willie, and then she snakes back out into the room, crawling forward until she reach around the chair and grab her duffel. She yanks it down to the floor, and sits frozen as she waits for gunfire. Either the sniper didn't see it, or he can't see her. So, she crawls back toward him, dragging it along. "I can't leave this here," she explains to him. "Let's get out of here. My bike is downstairs. I know where we can go."

Frank hesitates a moment as Barbara ducks back into the apartment, reaching out a hand too late to stop her. His eyes go to the bullet-shattered window, but there's no further fusillade of lead, so he just grumbles impatiently. He spins a finger in a tight circle at his waist, a 'move along' gesture that matches his growled, "C'mon, let's go, Red." And then she suggests a bike, and he freezes a moment, considering, "Yeah, fine. But if you make one crack about me riding bitch…" And with that, he steps over the unconscious Willie, headed down the hall toward the garage.

"I think you just made the joke all by yourself, Frank." Barbara shoulders up her bag, and is rising to step out after him. She glances behind her at the chaos of the apartment, and her lips thin. She immediately takes out her phone as she tracks behind the big Marine. She begins to text Jim Gordon: OUT OK. WENT TO SAFEHOUSE. WILLIE AND JAKE ARE OK. PLEASE DON'T WORRY. CALL SOON. Once sent, she shuts off her phone. Her father is going to hate that, and she will be paying hard time for that. She nods Frank to the stairwell, and outside, the sirens get louder. They will need to hustle down to the garage where Barbara's serious black bike waits for them. There's a locker by the bike where she quickly unlocks it, pulls out a helmet for her and her spare for Frank. Securing her duffel to the back of the bike with the bungees means that there's just enough room for the two of them, and Barbara is swinging up into the saddle before she tightens her helmet into place. Both are full-mask, which is probably good for Frank.

Frank watches her type for a heartbeat, and then puts a hand at her back to move her along the corridor as she does. "Tick-tock, Red." Still, there's some part of him that's glad that she's presumably checking in with her father, but another part of him just wants to be gone before the GCPD — the rest of them — arrives. And then there's the part of him that knows she's a daughter checking in with her father, and it crushes him just a little, because his daughter will never check in with him again. He hits the stairwell instead of the elevator, because it leaves more options. He eyes the bike for a moment, sighing as he takes the helmet, tucks his baseball cap into his hoodie pocket, and pulls the helmet on before he swings onto the back of the bike and grabs onto her hips. After all, he was the one complaining about the delay.

The weight of Frank's hands on her hips are a strange comfort, a way to anchor her to the moment. He's there, he just saved her life, and now whoever is out to frame Frank has brought this right to her doorstep. She can't ignore it anymore. She kicks the throttle, and then the street bike zips out of the garage within moments. There's the zoom and lights of patrol cars just the street up, and Barbara dodges the opposite direction. Maybe Frank hasn't seen much coverage on Batgirl, but she isn't just your standard street motorcyclist. She's got some serious skills, and at this moment, Barbara has no fear in showing off these skills without the cowl. She dodges through traffic easily, ducking toward the waterfront where the bay crashes around the smattering of islands. She zigzags around the blocks, letting the city fly past them — and with it, another GCPD patrol car with its lights flashing. They get to the diner within ten easy minutes, and Barbara parks her bike near the door.

Double-clutching as Barbara accelerates, Frank grimaces inside his helmet, getting a better grasp on her waist as they turn away from the cherries and berries. He's not a practiced backseat motorcyclist, but at least he isn't counterproductive. Still, it's a relief when they pull into the diner's parking lot and he can clamber off the back. The helmet comes off, and the hat goes back on again, the helmet hefted in one hand as he looks over the diner. He may have never been there before, but he knows the type, and he nods his approval. "How you don', Red? I know you're a big bad cape," thankfully, there's no one anywhere near, so he can growl that without dancing around, "and a badass biker. But being under automatic fire is somethin' else."

How you doin'? He asks. Barbara was actually doing okay until he asked her to actually reflect on how she's doing. The shakes settle in as she realizes the adrenaline has faded out. She's thankful for the hard grip she has on her own helmet, and she doesn't make eye contact with him right away as she unhooks her duffel. Both hands now full, she looks just a bit uneasy on her feet. When she meets his eyes, she starts to nod slowly. "I'm okay," she says softly before she furrows her brow, ducking away from his eyes. "Let's get inside." She starts for the simple two steps that lead them up into the waterfront diner — an old classic that is just about the size of a double-wide.

Frank watches for those adrenaline-comedown shakes, nodding a little to himself. He had his own release from the adrenaline on the back of the bike, and now he's steady as a rock again — except that need to do something that has his right index finger twitching. Still, he nods his acceptance of her partial lie, going up the stairs to hold the door open for her. Once they're inside, the hat comes off again, tucked into the helmet. At the sight of the '— Seat Yourself' sign that has long sinec lost its 'Please,' Frank leads the way to a booth, scooting onto the bench with a sight of both the door and the parking lot out front. Before he gets down to it, he looks up to the waitress, turning the cup in front of him right-side-up and raising a finger, "Ma'am? Coffee please? Black? Keep it coming?" And she delivers quickly enough, looking over to Babs with an arch of an eyebrow and a heft of the coffee pot.

Barbara follows behind him in silence, speaking not a word as she slides onto the bench across from him. She rubs her hands back through her red hair, sending it into a messy disarray behind her ears. When the waitress comes their way and Frank asks for coffee, she looks up to meet the woman's seeking eyes. She turns over her own cup. With her addictive personality, she's never had too much of anything. Right now, being caffeinated sounds like a great idea. "Please," she says softly as the woman fills her own cup. Barbara watches her walk away once both cups are satisfactory filled, and she cuts a gaze back to Frank. Her throat tightens a bit as she works through the first words that build inside her head. Then she looks at Frank. "What's going on, Frank?" She says, voice soft.

The helmet is set down inside of him in the booth, and Frank nods his thanks to the waitress, a polite smile and then he's looking back to Barbara, the smile fading away into a frown as he studies her. He takes a deep slug of the coffee, gathering the chipped white cup up between the fingers of both battered hands. "Someone's settin' me up. That cop conference, the DA, the doc." He takes another sip, although it's a smaller one this time. "If you didn't know me," and here his voice gets just a hint accusatory, and a touch hurt, for all it barely changes from its usual gruff growl, "they'd be just the targets you'd think I'd hit." The cup is set down, but his fingers stay there as he glances out the window, then looks back to Barbara, "So you're the detective. Who'd want to frame me?" He's already got his own ideas, of course.

The slight accusation in his tone draws Barbara's brows together, and then she looks down at her cup. She stares into the dark liquid for several long moments, letting his words wash over her. When she looks back up at him, her mouth is set into a firm frown. "Someone made it look like it was you… what little footage there was from the conference, it looked like you." But not quite. Even Barbara thought that the guy in the footage looked taller, walked slightly less broad, but it was difficult to track after he disappeared. Then there was all the other guys who looked like like Castle until you got close. Her dad thought it was suspicious, but the DA wrote it off as bad circumstances. She knew it was Castle. She's dead now. Barbara looks up at Frank after another lapse of silence. She frowns. "Any of the survivors of the Dogs, Cartel, or Irish. Or someone else you impacted through your mission." Blacksmith doesn't immediately comes to mind, but it itches at the back of her skull. "… Does anyone else besides Mercer know about us targeting Blacksmith?"

"Looks ain't everything, Red." There's that touch of humor back, and Frank takes another sip of the coffee and glances out the window again, "None of them could pull all this shit off. One op, two maybe. All three? Full-auto?" He shakes it off. "Whoever Blacksmith is, he can count." As in, the number of Irish, Dogs, and Cartel who were present shrinking down toward zero. Another sip of coffee, and the waitress comes by to refill his almost-empty cup, and offer some more to Babs as well. "Thanks, ma'am." Once she's gone back behind the counter again, his eyes flicker to the window, then back to her, "So what's the deal with you and Mercer? Is it just a rival families thing?" Which is probably his way of asking if it's a cape thing without asking if it's a cape thing in semi-public. "Or did you stand him up for a date?"

His use of Red causes her eyes to drop slightly, and she watches her hands work around the cup. She's not even taken a drink, so when the waitress offers a refill, she just presses her lips together and shakes her head. Then she waits until the waitress moves along before she looks back toward Frank once more. She opens her mouth to say something only to be stopped by Frank's words, and she draws up slightly. "Nothing is up with me and Owen." Her brows furrow together, and she works her hair back behind her ears once more. "He… yes. I guess you could say it's a rivalry thing." She snorts at the date thing. "He's not my type. No." Then she breathes out a slow exhale, and rubs at the smooth ceramic of the cup between her hands. She nods slightly. "Blacksmith, then. Kill a few cops, kill a DA…" Then she shakes her head, brow furrowed up. "But why me? Why kill me?"

"You were poking each other like crazy," he notes in response to her demurral. "Didn't know if it was a family thing, or flirting." Frank might be teasing her. Taking another sip of his refreshed cup, he sobers up a little, "Why you? Same reason I came here. You look at it from the wrong angle, you all did me wrong." Finally, he sets the cup of coffee down, gesturing to her across the table, "The whole VigiWatch thing." The way Rayes and Doctor Tepper did him wrong is a little more straight-forward. "Zane's with the cops, so he's safe." More or less. "That made you next on the list." Shifting in his seat, he tilts his head slightly, "Why do you let him get to you like that? Mercer. He's not your type. You don't care what he thinks. He can't hurt you. So you don't let him get to you."

"Because he's Owen Mercer… because…" Barbara licks slightly at her lips, looking out at the street with a searching look. "Because I'm doing something that the Bats don't do." She looks back at Frank. "I should take you down… I should drop you at the first precinct, let law and order sort you out. You… you are grieving, Frank, and through that grief you have killed dozens of people." She holds up her hand immediately, ready for his rebuttal, for the same lines he's given her and Daredevil and whoever else who challenges him. "They needed to be put down." Her words are soft now. "Sometimes… sometimes you find one… maybe young enough that they haven't settled into the life, or have always questioned it from the start… they flinch a little, hesitate a little at the trigger; they question themselves. Then there's people like Finn Cooley, and Domingo Velázquez, and Jimmy the Bear." All names on Frank's list; all names crossed off Frank's list.

"But you see… it would be one thing if I turned a blind eye… it's another for Mercer to walk in and see me like that. I let him get to me because he called me out on it." Through her words, Barbara hadn't made eye contact with Frank, letting herself get lost in the fine scratches of the ceramic and the glassy surface of the coffee. She looks up now, meeting his dark eyes across the stretch of mass-produced diner tabletop. Her next words are delivered in a threadbare, exhausted laugh, and she looks away to the ceiling as she sniffs back the emotions that build in her throat. "But I trust you, you've never lied to me about what you're doing, never mislead me to believe anything but the truth, and I…" She folds her lips together briefly. "I care what happens to you. And so… yeah. I let Mercer get to me, and I tried to distance myself because… that's not who I am, Frank. I'm concussion grenades and zipties. I'm not a bullet to the head."

Finally she takes a drink of her coffee, and her hand shakes a bit as she takes a sip.

Frank stirs right when she expects him to, but also settles down again, watching her steadily except for the three times he glances aside, looking out the window. When she looks up, however, his eyes are there to meet, "He's someone who knows you how you want to be. And you don't think you're bein' that person." Apparently, by his tone, he can accept that. He shifts in his seat, settling the helmet down a little closer to him. "You ain't been a bullet to the head yet, and you don't gotta be," and here his voice gets rough, the words quick and sharp, "but when we find Blacksmith, it's a bullet to the head for him, whether you're there or not, Red. Because I need this. I need this to be done." His eyes go out the window again, and he nods a little to himself, "Speaking of how much you trust me, I need you to get the waitress and the cook into the kitchen and find them the biggest piece of metal you see, get 'em behind that. And if you don't want anyone seeing you fight, you stay there with them."

Because there's the Buick outside, lights still on, hiding whoever is inside.

Her brows slowly start to arch when he drops that. Speaking of how much you trust me… She turns her head sharply toward the parking lot, and the Buick. When she looks back at Frank, her mouth is a serious line. "Bait, Frank? Really?" She grunts as she pushes up from the table, grabbing for her helmet out of more instinct than anything else. She stops once she's on her feet, and she looks down at him. "Barbara. You can call me Red, but I'm Barbara Gordon." There's some fierceness there, because all Frank has done since they met is call her Red even though he's heard her name. He needs to know who she is, and that's important to her. She is immediately moving for the waitress. "You need to get to the kitchens," she says in a tone that suggests authority. "You and anyone else inside this diner. You got me?" She looks over her shoulder toward Frank before she starts to guide the woman back to the kitchen where she can secure her and anyone else back there.

"I know who you are, Red. And whether they're here for me or you…" Frank shrugs a little helplessly. It doesn't matter who they're after. Besides, there are only two of them, as they demonstrate when they get out of the car and start toward the front door of the diner. "Whoever they're after, they know who sent 'em." For all his calm lack of expression, voicing that thought widens his eyes, his right finger twitching just a little. He watches Barbara shepherd the waitress and the cook back, and then picks up his coffee cup again, taking a sip as his right index finger taps lightly against the aged ceramic. As the door opens, he sets the cup down and gathers up the motorcycle helmet, standing and moving into the aisle with an easy grace, his left side forward, partially masking the impromptu weapon in his right hand. He should have brought a gun, but that might be pushing it on the train, especially with all the extra law enforcement around New York.

Barbara gets the waitress, line cook, and dishwasher all safely behind the enormous fridge in the back. She remains squatted beside them, listening for a long moment to the sound of the door open. She looks back to the woman. "Stay down," she whispers. Barbara tugs up the zipper of her jacket until the motocross jacket is zipped to her chin. She grabs up her own helmet, and starts to move slowly toward the edge of the kitchen where she can look out without being seen. She sets her jaw as she spots Frank's dark-haired head and the way he steps into view of whoever is coming in the door.

Frank walks slowly down the aisle, even as the lead intruder hefts a pistol. The guy with the shotgun behind him doesn't have a clear line of fire with his friend in the way, and that's just fine by Frank. Castle hesitates a moment, glancing toward the kitchen, then looks back to the two, "Don't suppose either of you want to give up your boss without a fight." The pistol comes up, aiming toward Frank without a word, and the Punisher surges forward, "Guess not." The helmet swings across his body, knocking the pistol off-line as it booms three times in quick succession. The Punisher's backhand with the helmet sends the pistoleer sprawling to one side, and the shotgun booms even louder as Frank leaps aside. Instead of blood spraying around, it's stuffing from one of the ancient booth-seats.

That's when the lights go out. Barbara surges out from behind the counter, leaping effortlessly into the aisle just behind the shotgun-wielder. In three precise hits, the redhead slams her helmet into his head, pummels her foot into his knee, and then thrusts the guy's face into the table with a resounding thud. She expected that to drop him, but instead she's sent backwards as the shotgun butt cracks into her gut just below her ribs. It is an unexpected move that almost drops her to a knee. The big guy looms over her, his back now to Castle and his focus entirely on Barbara, and his sneer is sharp against the darkness.

The lights going out is new, but Frank responds better than the two hitters. He surges back up out of the booth, catching the blur of motion hitting the shotgun wielder, and turns instead to the pistol-man — just in time for the pistol to come up in his face. This time, however, he isn't trying to cover distance, he's right up close, so when the helmet comes up, it's been turned around in his hands, enveloping the pistol and the hand holding it, and soaking two shots before the hard shove twists the man's wrist at a painful angle and the pistol goes clattering away. But the looming from Frank's other side is bad news, and so he leaves the former pistol-wielder to go leaping after his pistol. Instead, Frank throws the helmet after him and reaches out to wrap an arm around the shotgun man's neck, putting his hip into the guy's back to get him off-balance and to keep away from the shotgun butt. Instead, the guy with the shotgun rams his head back, sending stars bursting into Frank's vision and starting his nose bleeding profusely. In return, Frank gives a twist, sending the mook stumbling and swapping places with Frank just as his 'friend' turns back to the two vigilantes, pistol once more in his hand and at the ready.

With Barbara in a kneeling squat, she looks almost helpless before the Blacksmith goon. He sneers something to her about how this would have been a lot easier if she had just get shot up in her apartment. She would have had some kind of response if she was actually paying closer attention on the man's words and not his looming approach. She catches sight of Frank's dark jeans and boots between the guy's legs. The cornered glance is quick, and then she's back to looking down, lost in the fall of red hair. She's almost counting seconds in her head, not even looking up when Frank grapples the goon. She hears the crunch of skull to nose, and doesn't have time to guess who did what. All she is betting on is the time that this all gives her to slot out the razor batarangs from their spot in the shaft of her boot. She counts out three, lacing them between the webbing of her hand where they nick at her fair skin, welling blood at the soft cuts. Normally, she'd have gloves to guard her hand from their edge. Not tonight. She's breathing a bit unevenly behind Frank thanks to the hit from the goon, but there's a glimmer of a smile at her lips. She's suddenly moving in a burst of grace and speed, putting her boot into a stool to vault her behind the counter. She barely stops to get her footing before she's sprinting along the free pathway toward the pistoleer.

The pistoleer starts shooting, not recognizing in the dim light of the waterfront coming in the windows that his fellow hitter is between him and his target. Six quick shots, and then the pistol clicks empty, the slide locking back just as he starts to turn to follow the motion headed behind the counter. There's a clatter as the magazine hits the floor, and the guy starts to pull out another one, moving a little slow because of how much his wrist and head already hurt. The clip slots in just as Barbara reaches the end of the counter nearest him.

Four of those six shots go into the gut of the shotgunner, causing him to cry out in pain and drop the weapon. One goes flying past to destroy one of the diner's coffee pots — it's alright though, it's the decaf. The last one creases Frank's hip, drawing a little hiss of pain but nothing more. When the clip hits the floor, Frank throws the wounded man down toward the stools before the counter, the goon's pre-kicked leg buckling. He reaches for the shotgun, despite having spotted Babs's rush behind the counter, but the downed goon is still holding on tight, and after a sharp yank, Frank surges down into a kneel alongside the guy, slamming his elbow into the side of the mook's head once, twice, three times. That gets him to release the shotgun. Finally.

Barbara hears the cries of pain and sound of bodily damage behind her, but she's too focused. She can't look back to see if that's Frank or the shotgun goon. She dodges out into the aisle from the little split in the counter, stepping right into the line of fire with a flurry of red hair and leather. Without the cowl, it is hard to hide the absolute ferocity in that bare expression. She's feeding on the adrenaline, and the anger, and the exhaustion, and now the pain. And her blue eyes burn just as the pistoleer gets his gun up again, but then he's getting a literal fistful of blades to his torso as Barbara goes slashing across his button-up shirt. Her hand sings in pain at the exchange, but she knows she's doing more damage to him than the razors are to her.

Frank could unload the shotgun into the guy's face, finish things off, but he needs someone to question, so instead he just rips the weapon away and stands up again, giving the poor mook a kick in his shot-up belly that leaves him groaning and whimpering. Unsure if the weapon was racked again after its first shot, he pumps the slide, sending a shell spilling out of the weapon, then advances on where Babs is taking it to the pistoleer. That worthy yelps as the blades cut across his chest and stomach, stumbling back as he fires three shots into the prep area behind the counter, busting a line somewhere in the soda machine and sending dark syrup spritzing everywhere. He's off-balance now, trying to get the pistol aimed at his frenzied attacker before she can lay open his chest again.

Barbara is advancing quick and hard until she lodges a razor into his shoulder, and then between the intercostal space of ribs four and five, and then she flings her third down into the top of his boot. Her bloodied hand grabs for his wrist, and she gives a hard twist that causes his nerves to spasm, all in some attempt to get the guy to drop the pistol. She senses Frank behind her, knowing that the Punisher is coming in quickly. All she needs to decide is if she ducks, or not.

One, two, three… and then the wrist. Somewhere in there the guy loses the pistol, trying to scrabble his hand free of Barbara's wrenching twist, all in order to try and pluck the blade from between his ribs. There's probably a scream or two in there too. The Punisher slows his approach as Barbara operates on the guy, but instead of aiming for a headshot, he lowers the barrel of the shotgun until it points toward the knee of the former pistoleer and growls, "One side, Red." And if she moves, he fully intends to put a load of buckshot into the guy's lower leg. If she doesn't, well… he'll have to vent his adrenaline and anger somewhere else.

That's all she needs. Barbara sidesteps, releasing the guy's hand now that his pistol is gone. She kicks her foot, sending the weapon toward Frank. Then she's drawing herself up suddenly onto the booth table and directly out of the line of fire for Frank. She's bloodied, tired, and in pain, but she does not seem ready to stop. She waits for the blast of buckshot, her mouth set in a hard expression.

When Babs clears his line of fire, the Punisher takes the shot. He's not one to hesitate, and he doesn't this time. That leaves the former pistoleer screaming in pain and clutching at a ruined leg. That's two out of the fight. Frank scoops up the pistol kicked to him by Barbara, checks the door and the car outside to make sure there isn't a third, then looks between the two hitters. He makes his choice and stalks back toward the gutshot man, shotgun held by its pistol grip in one hand, the actual pistol in the other, "Where do we find him?" The words are a sudden burst of sound, and when there's a hint of hesitation, Frank nudges the man in the gut with the barrel of the shotgun, "Where is he?" That elicits a scream, but no coherent words yet, just babbled pleading. He looks over to Barbara, uncaring at the moment about the blood streaming from his probably-broken-again nose or the bullet-graze on his side.

The scream jars Barbara more than anything else tonight. It gets right under her skin and rattles her bones. She's pushing back to her feet, ignoring the bloodied man behind her with his knee torn to bits. She steps toward Frank, her mouth set into a hard line. "Frank," she says, her words soft despite the screaming torture of the man on the ground. She steps closer to him, and then she looks down at the goon on the ground. She drops into a low squat so he can easily see her. "Tell us where the Blacksmith is… tell us where he is, and I'll have Frank kill you quick." The words surprise her as they slip from her lips. These guys were part of, if not entirely responsible for, her destroyed apartment, for trying to kill her, for maybe even killing Reyes, and the cops at TCLEC. Her dad had been there, so had Peter, and Jessica. Some of them just need to be put down, and she's made her decision on these two.

Besides, based on their wounds, they are both dead men.

They're both dead men unless they get some really good medical care really fast. So in Gotham? Dead men. Still, Barbara's offer surprises Frank, and his brows rise sharply, causing him to step aside where the soft use of his name didn't seem to have any effect. Apparently shocked somewhat out of his rage, Frank takes a step back, pacing back and forth in the aisle of the diner. If he were the tiger he looks like, his tail would be lashing.

"I don't want to die…" The man's words bubble up alongside rivulets and strings of red. He's definitely in a bad way. "…please… I don't want to…"

Frank starts forward again, hefting the shotgun. He looks from one to the other, then fires a shot from the pistol, striking the booth alongside the head of man with only one lower leg, who has subsided into quiet little whimpers. From where Babs blocks the shotgunner's line of sight, it may well look like Frank just executed the other hitter. "Where is he!"

"You're going to die… there is nothing I can do for that. I'm not offering you anything more than two paths: you tell Frank where to find him, and your life ends… or you don't, and we leave you here. Gotham isn't New York City… no one is going to want to clean up this mess. Get in a call to 911, they'll just put you on hold." Her words are hard, cold, and razor-edged. But, not false. Her father has worked hard to see the change this city needs, but Jim Gordon has always been working against bigger forces, stronger ties, and a corruption so deep, you need to just burn the city to the ground for it to go away. Maybe he'd get someone here by using Frank's name, but knowing her luck, it would be her dad. She doesn't need that either. Her voice softens. "Tell us where he is."

The mortally-wounded man flinches at the gunshot, his pleading eyes locking on Barbara's shadowed face. The words are cold comfort, if they're comfort at all. "Fuck… fuck him. Sent us here… supposed to be…" Whatever it was supposed to be, the words trail off, and he painfully switches tacks, "41. Pier 41." There's a pause, and then he writhes some, hands pressing to the bloody mess of his stomach. "…hurts…. so cold… it hurts…"

Frank listens to the words that come tumbling painfully out of the man's mouth, then he shrugs slightly, lifting the pistol again. The first shot stops the whimpering of the pistoleer, and gives Babs time to get her head far enough away that when he lowers the pistol and puts a second shot right into the shotgun man's brainpan, it won't hurt her ears. Setting down the shotgun, he starts to go over the man's pockets, pulling out the keys to the Buick outside. "Get Mercer. And the other guy if you want him." There's a pause as he considers making two other calls. A medic and another gunman could be real helpful… but Curtis is back in New York, in demon-infested New York, and he doesn't have Billy's number. "Tell Mercer to bring my carbine. I'll get him his boomerangs later." There's a target in Frank's sights, and he's not thinking about how Barbara is handling the responsibility for two deaths right now. He's not thinking about much of anything but Blacksmith. "One batch, two batch, penny and dime," he whispers to himself.

Barbara hears the shot behind her, and it sends her belly cold. She turns sharply toward Frank, almost alarmed, but it is just to see him pivot toward the shotgun man. She scrambles back, crawling back on hands and knees to get closer to Frank and further from the man whose life ends in a quick headshot. She feels her stomach clench around itself, holding onto bile and that one sip of coffee. Her heart pounds in her chest and ears, and she curls into herself briefly as she sits on the floor of the diner. She knew they were dead men; she has seen enough wounds like that to know that, unless there was a miracle on the operating table at Gotham General Hospital, there was no way either of them was going to pull through. She glances up to Frank, hearing that murmur. His list just got a little bit longer.

She nods mutely, drawing herself upright slowly. Her hand shakes a bit as she presses it to the tabletop of the nearby booth. She takes out her phone, and the device quakes in her hand until she grips it hard enough that neither it nor her fingers shake. She turns on the phone, letting it boot. Immediately, her phone blows up with missed calls, voicemails, text messages — all from Dad. She ignores them, swiping them aside with her thumb to instead open a text message up. She doesn't have Mercer's contact, but she has Luke's. She types her message slowly, but there's no stopping the odd typos:

Found Black Smith. Gotham Peer 41. Tell M to bring F carbine. Boomer rings deliver later. Pleads hurry.

Just as she hits send, her phone's screen is interrupted by an incoming call: Dad. It fills the diner with the chorus from Earth, Wind and Fire's Shining Star.

The keys go into Frank's pocket, and then he pulls out an envelope of cash from one of the dead man's other pockets, undoubtedly the down payment for the hit. Thumbing through it, he considers a moment, glancing around, and then stands up and tucks it under the 'service please' bell on the counter. A few more shotgun shells are retrieved, and then he moves over to the pistoleer, glancing back to Barbara as she shakes her way through the text message. The other dead man has no more ammo, but he's got an envelope of cash too, which Frank tucks away with the shotgun shells. That explains how he keeps operating without income. His dark eyes study the young Bat for a long moment, and then he growls quietly, "Breathe, Red. I wasn't gonna leave 'em anyhow. They aren't on you." And then her phone lights up, and he tilts his head, listening to the song. There, in the midst of the chaos and blood of the hit-gone-bad, he actually smiles a little, one corner of his lips curling up, and he nods his head with the beat, "That's a good song. I used to sing along to that. Can you imagine me doing that?"

Barbara barely notices Frank and his looting; she sees him move, but what he's moving for is lost on her as she worries her way through her phone. Frank's encouraging words prompt his goals: she takes a slow, deep breath that calms her heart, bringing it down a notch so it isn't about to break free of her ribcage. She looks down the phone as it continues to ring — now Jim Gordon knows his daughter's phone is on. She quickly ends the call, and stuffs the phone into her motocross jacket. She looks up at Frank at his non sequitur; blood splatters her face, and none of it is hers. It blends in with the fallen strands of red hair. Her gut aches where the shotgun butt was slammed into her just beneath her ribcage. She feels the sticky residue of blood from the nicks in-between her fingers. She feels exhaustion. She wants to punch Frank Castle, regardless of his affection for seventies disco funk. "It's going to take Owen and Luke time to get here." Her words are flat. "I need to take care of something." Her dad. Jim Gordon will tear the city apart if Barbara doesn't call him soon. She moves uneasily toward the door, grabbing up her fallen helmet. "I'll meet you at Pier 41."

There in the darkness, Frank studies Barbara in silence for a moment as his own jolt of adrenaline starts to come down from its heights. His right thumb brushes over the fingertips of that hand, smearing blood between them. He rises to his feet and approaches her, one hand settling on her shoulder and squeezing lightly if she allows it. "You did good, Red." He's in 'encourage the young soldier' mode now, "Do what you gotta do. If you want backup, you got it." Evidently her fighting alongside him in the unnecessary — to people not him — fight in the diner has put his questioning of her to rest, "I got the phone on me." And he'll put the battery back in it when he gets into the Buick outside. He collects the battered and broken motorcycle helmet he used as an impromptu bullet-catcher and the shotgun from the floor of the diner, hesitating again as he watches her.

That squeeze to her shoulder loosens some tension from her, and she trembles slightly. The encouragement causes her to bite at her inner cheek, but she holds back the gratitude for his comfort. When she looks back up at him, her pale eyes are serious once more, and she nods. "Okay." The word is dry, hoarse. She looks up at the battered helmet, and it captures the scene in the darkened diner almost perfectly. Her words come before her brain can really check them, and she says, "I don't think that helmet is still safety-guaranteed." She takes it gingerly from him, and then starts to walk away to the diner door. She hesitates just at the metal kick-plate, and then turns toward Frank. "I'll be there, Frank."

"Not much in this world is safety guaranteed, Red." Frank gives up the helmet willingly, studying their handiwork in the diner for a moment. Barbara's turn back towards him and her promise draws his attention to the woman in the door, and he nods slowly, "I know." When she departs, he looks back to the dead bodies, and there in the darkness, his trigger finger begins to twitch, and a slow, hunter's smile slips onto his lips. He flips the keys around his left index finger, and heads for the door himself and his new Gotham wheels.

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