Bone Demons

October 06, 2018:

Bone Demons attack the support group Frank definitely doesn't attend. Barbara happens on the scene and lends a hand.

Outside a Hell's Kitchen church.

Characters

NPCs: Six bone demons.

Mentions: Curtis Hoyle

Plot:

Mood Music: None.


Fade In…

Even with just six names left on his list — a Dog of War went down last night — Frank Castle makes time to linger around Curtis's veterans group while they're meeting. Maybe he doesn't think he needs to be there, but he keeps coming back. Now they're winding down for a last cup of better-than-you'd-expect coffee and a last donut, and so Frank is heading up and out of the basement of the church, emerging into the fading light of afternoon from a side door and pulling up the collar of his canvas jacket. He rubs his hands together, and then stops. He's come to recognize that greasy feel to the air as no good, and he works his mouth as if he's going to spit, his right hand slipping under his jacket to grasp the grip of his favored M1911A1 .45 caliber pistol. "Shit."

Because there are half a dozen creatures approaching, tall beings that would be thin if it weren't for the armor of bones that they wear about them. It's hard to tell if they are wearing bone helmets too, or if their heads are simply skeletal. They carry rusty blades, however, swords, scythes, and knives. And they're headed straight for the door that Frank just exited.

*

Something about New York City keeps calling Barbara Gordon back. She's back tonight after visiting with a lawyer — well, friend really isn't the right word, but she had to give Matt Murdock more than just a simple acquaintance title, so — friend. Her motorcycle rips down the street about two blocks up from the little church where the veteran's had been meeting. For once, she's not here to see Castle, and yet their paths so elegantly cross as she comes ripping down the empty city block. She spots the demons on their approach, and her jaw sets slightly. She should just take the turn and make another route to the abandoned city tunnel she had used to get into the city. Instead, she tucks low against her black motorcycle and twists the throttle as she picks up speed, aiming to run herself right into the squadron of hellspawn.

*

Frank glances behind the approaching bone demons, grimacing slightly. No cops. That's good, at least. Because he really doesn't want to be caught by misguided boys and girls in blue pissed about the DA he didn't kill. Even he's not going to do a lot of good with a pistol at the current range, but he still draws the weapon, gathering it in a two-handed grip and studying the six demons as they clatter closer. The scream of the motorcycle claws at his ears, and his eyes flicker aside, taking in the bike's approach and the lean of its rider. Familiarity plays at the corners of his thoughts, but he pushes it down, focusing down the sights of the big pistol instead. "Wish I'd brought the SPAS," he mutters. But that combat shotgun is illegal as all hell, so carrying it around town isn't the best idea ever.

Two of the demons look aside at the conveyance screaming down at them, turning to face Barbara with sickle and sword. They prepare to split and attack from either side when she nears. The other four break into a jerking, rattling run toward Frank and the church beyond.

*

Barbara's mean skills on that motorcycle come into play — combined with the serious upgrade to her bike's armor after her last wreck. She tips it, swinging her leg up over the saddle as she drags it down to the ground just three yards out from the two demons. It hits the ground, kicking up sparks as it slams into the demon's legs just as the rider lets go.

She rolls across the asphalt, getting up to a kneeling position in a quick second and launching a concussion batarang at the sword-bearer. Then she's on her feet, pulling two collapsible batons from beneath her jacket. They aren't as good as her tonfa, but those are still in the duffel bungee-corded to the back half of her saddle. She's still in her matte helmet, but the curl of red braid at her neck is probably a helpful sign for Frank.

*

Not just the red braid, but the fearlessness, skill on the motorcycle, and above all, the crack of the concussive force from the batarang. Frank starts firing as the four bone demons close on his position, slow, steady shots to make the most out of the eight rounds he has between magazine and chamber. Each barking explosion from the pistol sends a big bullet nearly half an inch in diameter downrange toward a single demon bearing a sword. His brows shoot up at the crack of the concussion batarang, and then draw down into a scowl, and he clenches his jaw as he starts down the steps from the church porch, stepping between shots.

One of the demons tumbles over the skidding bike, rolling along the ground to recover from the impact and tottering a little unsteadily back up to its feet. It lost the sickle somewhere along the way, but starts carefully toward Barbara with a hiss from between its skeletal jaws. The concussion-rang explodes with a shower of bone splinters from the thing's breastplate, and it staggers back, but starts toward Barbara, drawing back its sword for a sweeping slash. Frank's target staggers too, splinters chipping away from its head, and then one bullet catching it in the eye and dropping it like a marionette with its strings cut. The other three glance at one another and leap forward, two of them echoing the hiss of their fellow menacing Babs. They're nearly to the porch and the veteran Marine at the base of its steps.

*

Barbara is not wearing armor — but worst of all, she's not supposed to be moving like this. When the sword is swiped her way, she tries to duck back with a quick, familiar movement that has her entire rib cage screaming in pain. She staggers instead, managing to get out of the sword's way but also almost hitting the asphalt with her knee. She uses this lower position to swipe hard with her baton at the demon's knee, hoping for softness around the joints. She gets back up to her feet, hoping to keep just out of the sword's reach. She takes both batons in one hand, wielding them together like a club so she can also fling out another batarang, the concussive blast aimed for the sword-wielder's shoulder.

*

The surprising speed from the bone demons sends Frank back a step, pumping out the last three shots in his pistol and then palming the magazine into a pocket smoothly. It's not much use with the slide locked back empty, but his hand comes back with a full magazine in it, just as he has to bat aside one thrusting knife-hand. His own twist to let the blade go past his shoulder tugs at the bullet-wound in his side, drawing a grunt, but he keeps moving, preferring the pain in his side to a close encounter with one of those tetanus-nurseries that the demons are wielding. A sickle just misses his arm as he ducks under it, and he's pushing forward to get inside the arc of another, taking a bone-armored bicep to the shoulder with enough force to knock him staggering. But then he's able to get the magazine slapped into the pistol and ready it.

The bone armor soaks up baton blows, although they do crack a bone and hopefully leave the joint open for further attacks. It also delays a counter-attack, forcing the creature onto the defensive. The second batarang is pulled out, the demon preparing to throw it aside… only to have it explode and blow apart its bone-sheathed fingers. The formerly-sickle-armed demon totters closer, reaching out to try and grasp Babs's shoulders and hold her still for the one with the sword. The second half of Frank's magazine sends one sickle-wielding demon staggering back, but doesn't drop it. The knife-wielder circles around Frank, looking to get to the door, and the second sickle-wielder takes another slash at Frank.

*

The demon gets purchase on her motocross jacket, but just. She ducks low again, and a muffled cry is lost to the confines of her helmet as she staggers once more. She loses grip on one baton, it clattering to the ground. Her teeth grit, face contorted behind the mask of her helmet in agony. She feels the two crowd her as she ducks low, grabbing her third and last concussion batarang. She doesn't throw this one, and instead just slams its edge into the wounded knee, and then ducks low to accept whatever is about to happen when the grenade explodes. On the ground, she's able to grab for her fallen baton once more.

*

Frank should be closing closer with the demon he's nearly grappling with, but another is going for the door, where there are wounded veterans, veterans with PTSD, and a couple of assholes who also happen to be veterans. That's not going to happen on Frank's watch. He unloads the entire magazine into the sickle-demon's torso with a roar, then turns away from it. Its sickle just catches his jacket, but the second sickle bites deeper, slashing across the back of his rib-cage as he lunges for the knife-wielder in a flying tackle. "You're not getting inside!"

Barbara's third concussion charge does its job, blasting apart the thing's knee and sending it tumbling down and scrabbling for — its footing, it's weapon, escape, something. The other one tries to grasp tighter on the jacket and throw her down to the ground. The flurry of hot lead drives one demon back, shattering the armor over its chest but not dropping it. The other howls as its weapon draws blood and charges after Frank. The charge seems to surprise the knife-wielding demon, and it tumbles down onto stairs with a clatter of bone on wood, beneath an angry veteran Marine.

*

The blasting apart of the kneecap gives her just a heartbeat of victory, and then she's being thrown to the ground. She cannot hold back the scream of pain that builds in her throat as she hits the ground. But that pain turns to rage, and that rage turns to her own unstoppable mettle. She swings herself onto her belly in a smooth, sharp movement, and then she slams her heel up into the solar plexus of the looming demon. Then she's continuing to roll until she can kip up. The pain is there, burning through her pain so she can double-tap with a sharp, confident roundhouse kick.

*

Frank drops his pistol and grabs for the demon's head, grasping hard and trying to shove his thumbs into its eye sockets even as he rocks its head back and forth, trying to slam the skull or skull-helmet through the stairs. "You. Ain't. Getting. Inside." The words are a harsh roar into whatever passes for a demon face despite the blood running down his side.

The badly-damaged demon gets onto all threes, its blasted knee hanging just above the ground. The other demon looms for a moment, then draws up a foot to try and stamp on Barbara — just in time to get a a heel to its ribs and then a roundhouse kick to its head, sending it staggering and then falling to the ground. The demon down on the stairs screams horribly, scrabbling at Frank's arms, face, and chest as first the boards of the stairs break, and then the back of its head starts to cave in. Unfortunately for the veteran Marine, there's another demon right there, raising up its sickle to try to drive the point into the top of Frank's shoulder. The demon with the shattered breastplate staggers forward, scooping up a length of broken bone and starting to try to get past Frank and up the stairs.

*

Her breath is coming fast and hard in her chest, and she turns sharply from the fallen demon toward Frank. Her helmet is still in place — which speaks volumes to its secure safety. She advances toward the demon trying to get Frank with its sickle raised. She has her batons out, and she swings them together in a twin strike to the demon's back, and then kicks out her motocross boot to its knee. "Get down," she snarls through the helmet. "And stay there."

*

When the head starts to give out beneath the pummeling, Frank looses it, ignoring the sludge on his thumbs to twist toward the demons he knows are coming after him. The sickle catches the top of his shoulder with the inside curve of the blade instead of the point. It still tears into his flesh and draws a welter of blood, but at least it doesn't shred the joint. When Barbara intervenes, it saves him from worse damage, and he slumps back for a moment, then pushes himself up, drawing his Ka-Bar and growling, "Vets inside. Lotta missing limbs." He holds the blade reversed in his hand, studying the remains of the demon group.

The sickle-wielder is knocked aside by the double blow to the back and to its knee, cracking its head on the asphalt and sprawling out. The three-limbed demon grabs the leg of the demon that the incognito Batgirl dropped first, ripping it off and levering itself up to its foot, using it as a crutch. That leaves a pair of damaged demons facing off against a pair of damaged vigilantes, one with a bone crutch-club and a shattered knee, and the other with a bone stub for a weapon and a shattered breastplate.

Frank glances to Barbara a moment and then growls, "Which one you want, Red?"

*

Vets inside. So that's why Frank is here. Barbara's head turns toward Frank at his growling question, and then she looks back at the demons. She gives her batons a quick spin before locking them back into her palms as she drops to a fighter stance. "I'll take the knee." Then she launches forward, driving through her pain to engage in a quick stand-off between the last demons. She ducks the first attack from the crutch, and then begins a quick and sharp series of stick attacks. She goes for joins, for places where armor is always the weakest.

*

That leaves Frank the one without the armor on his chest. Good, they each get to dance with the ones they brought to the injured reserve. His eyes, tight with pain, flicker up and down the demon's form, and he gives a little twitch of his right arm, flipping the blade over so that it juts out the top of his hand instead. "I get the chest then." He waits for Barbara to cross in front of him, then lurches forward, going straight for the arm with the splintered bone with his left hand, despite the wound on his shoulder and opposite side, cross-stepping forward to try to jab the long, curved knife into the splintered holes in the breastplate.

Two of the demons are still twitching, two are entirely still, and two are… under attack, for probably the first time in whatever passes for their lives. The Knee hops on one foot long enough to block the first blow with its leg-cane, then takes a couple of blows to armor, losing a chip here or there, being driven back, and hissing in frustration. The Chest thrusts at Frank's ribs, trying to power through the wounded arm as it twists to try to protect its chest. The thrust from Frank grates on its armor then catches something beneath, but nothing vital as it comes to meet him, grabbing with its off hand and trying to stab with its right.

*

There's harder presses forward, sharper drives forward, and she's slamming the demon with her batons. She lands a blow across its neck and then against the belly. She can feel that burst of energy start to taper — that adrenaline fade. The pain is coming back, but all she wants to do is to drop the demon like the others. She slams the baton across its cheek, and again across its ribs. She can hear her heart too loudly in her ears, feel the ground beneath her slant, and she drives her heels in, in hopes of just staying upright a few more seconds.

*

Frank ends up with a bone splinter in his forearm, but at least it's not in his ribs. He grunts in pain, and then takes some bony knuckles to the temple. He can't stagger, however, locked in a deadly embrace with a demon. His combat knife grates on bone, but he's already twisting it to withdraw and stab again, each darting thrust quick, sure, and strong, his arm moving like a machine piston, the motion sending rivulets of blood from the slash at the back of his ribs. The first thrust that actually finds purchase, Frank crouches low then drives up, trying to lift the demon off its feet with a roar and slam it down onto its back.

The Knee can only fend off so many blows, and it falls under the flurry of blows, its head twisted nearly 90 degrees by the blow to the cheek. The Chest grasps at Frank's arm with its free hand, shrieking as its stabbed repeatedly and then lifted into the air. It ends up on its back with a Ka-Bar in its gut, twitching, twisting, and screaming.

*

Barbara Gordon staggers once her target has dropped, and she grips suddenly at her belly through the thick leather of her motocross jacket. She is breathing heavily through her helmet, her head spinning. She drops to a knee, and then another, kneeling before she takes her helmet free of her sweat-damp red hair. She takes in a deep breath, and then coughs at the sulfurous intake. She looks at the demon at her feet, and then grimaces as she turns away from it, bending down over her belly wound that aches like the shrapnel has been driven back into the depths of her gut. She lifts her eyes, looking for Frank with her hand still gripping one baton.

*

Frank drops a knee into the shattered chest-armor of the demon beneath him, then drives the knife into its chest another half dozen times, "You don't get them." His furor has spattered demonic ichor over his face and chest, and he straightens up, looking over to Barbara bent over, "Thought you were staying quiet for a week." Wiping the blade of his knife off on his shirt, he sheathes the weapon and heads over for his pistol and its magazines. His gravelly voice is tight with pain, "You gonna collapse on me, Red?"

*

Barbara Gordon looks up at him, helmet in her lap. She just curls around it for a moment, trying to find a moment of stabilizing quiet despite the low groaning hisses of dying demons. When she looks up at that question, she shakes her head slightly. "No." She feels tireder than she should, but her body is still healing. "But I'm going to need a hand-up." She collapses the baton in her hand, and reaches for the second to do the same. She can feel the blood trickling from where a staple has loosened from her Alfred-patched wound. "Would you believe me… when I say I wasn't following you this time around?"

*

Looking over his shoulder to the side door of the church, Frank steps over to her and reaches down with one hand, a heavy bruise already starting to rise on the side of his face alongside a half dozen scrapes. When she takes his hand, he leans back to help haul her to her feet. Blood trickles from his own slashes, and he grunts, "No." He cracks just a hint of a smirk, "Maybe. New York's a big place. Lots of people you could be here to see." He upnods a little, "You break anything? You, the bike?"

*

Barbara muffles a sound that is almost a cry of pain when he helps her up, and then she breathes out a slow, steadying breath. She looks up at him, her blue eyes meeting his. A bit of sweat-slicked hair sticks to her forehead and cheek, almost emulating the cuts on his own skin. Then she smiles up at him, squeezing his shoulder gently. "The bike's fine. It's taken worse." She presses a hand to her side, and she breathes out a slow exhale. "I think I split a stitch."

*

Frank keeps her hand clasped long enough for her to steady herself, studying her face as the pain washes over it. "Yeah. You did somethin' alright." He glances over his shoulder a moment, "Let's get you 'round the corner. Some folks gonna be comin' out real soon." Shifting to sling her arm over his shoulder, he winces himself, then nods toward the corner of the church, "I'll tape it up." There's a pause as he glances toward the door, "There's a guy in there. Best corpsman I ever knew. But he'd know you got somethin' on the side."

*

Barbara breathes through the way she has to stretch to have her arm slung across his shoulder and feet still on the ground. She leans into him, letting him lead her toward the corner of the church. Her eyes cut toward the church and then back to Frank. "You telling me my choices are between your duct tape or convincing your friend that I'm nothing more than a woman who happens to be trained in some fighting techniques." She snorts good-naturedly at him. "Sexist." Then she leans into him once more, head resting against her arm and his briefly. "I can't ride home with duct tape…"

*

"I'm tellin' you that your choices are between my duct tape and a guy smart enough to put twelve and twelve together and get twenty-four." That's a little harder than two and two, of course. Frank starts leading the way around the corner, going quiet as the door opens and a couple of people poke their heads out of the door, the dead bodies drawing a lot of attention. Around the corner, Frank leans back against the wall of the church, leaving a little smear of blood there but giving them both a little bit of respite. "Think you can ride home with new stitches? Or are you stashing your bike here?" Or, you know, herself.

*

"That's where my guy learned his work," Barbara breathes slowly out now that they are taking a bit of a break. She leans against the wall against him, shoulder pressed to shoulder and head resting against the wall. She closes her eyes. "He was part of Special Air Service… he looks after the Bats. He's going to give me such hell when I get home." Then she rolls her head over to look at him, her blue eyes tired. Her mouth presses together slightly, and then she nods a bit. "Guess I'm stashing myself here…"

*

Frank's eyebrows go up at the mention of the SAS, but he keeps quiet as a group of guys, including several men missing one limb or another. The veteran Marine watches them closely, "The SAS are hard men." His words are quiet, so as to not draw attention from those exclaiming over their handiwork. And then he looks over to her, "Stashing yourself?" He grunts a little sourly, then nods, "Yeah. Makes sense. I'll get you taped up and call a cab. Then I'll get your bike."

*

"He is." Then the redhead closes her eyes as she rests against the wall. When he says he will call her a cab, she glances to him. Her eyes linger on his brown gaze for a long moment, letting the silence stretch between them. Then she looks back out at those walking past the alley. She grows distant there, her head resting against the wall. She then breathes out a slow sigh. "Yeah, alright." She smiles ruefully to him. "Get your tape."

*

"You're not walking to my place with tape on, Red." Frank ducks out from under her arm, leaving her leaning back against the wall, and he drops down onto concrete at his feet, painfully digging a flattened roll of duct tape from his jacket pocket. "Never leave home without it. Fuckin' claws." Or sickles and knives in this case. He starts tearing it off and tabbing strips onto her knee. "Show me."

*

Barbara grimaces through her teeth as he eases out from under her arm. She leans her head back, eyes closed as she just relaxes into the brick. Then she glances down at him as he starts to get his duct tape prepped. "Don't think they tested this on Mythbusters." Then she unzips her jacket, revealing the blood-stained white t-shirt beneath. The big block letters on the shirt read: LIBRARY CHIC(K). She eases up the hem to reveal her pale abdomen, the stapled puncture wood ugly and red at the edges in contrast to her freckled skin. "Glad to be adding 'wounded duct taped' to my 'Things I've Experienced' list."

*

"Bullshit. They tested everything on Mythbusters. Can't shoot for shit though." Frank snorts a pained laugh at the shirt, "Nice." He looks down at his gore-covered hands, then wipes them off on the plain black t-shirt under his own jacket, shrugging a little helplessly. His own jacket comes off, accompanied by ripples of pain passing under his hard features, and then he tears an arm off his hoodie, chopping it up to make bandages. Taking care with the sections of the tape, he lines the hoodie-bandages with them, only touching sections that aren't going onto unbloodied pale skin, "Putting it on ain't so bad. Taking it off sucks." The benefit, of course, is that it can be done quickly and in any circumstances. The now-one-sleeved hoodie goes back on, and he painfully pulls on his jacket, pulling out cellphone and battery and putting them together to call a cab company. As it's ringing, he looks up to Babs, "You hangin' in there, Red?"

*

"So warned," Barbara breathes quietly as he continues to work at getting her wound taped and bandaged. She looks at him briefly and then back to his work. Only once he's settled into his heels and on the phone, she closes her eyes and rests more heavily into the wall. She glances down at him briefly at his question, and she nods. "I've had worse," she admits quietly. "I honestly didn't come to New York to fight demons." Except perhaps some of her own.

*

Frank grunts at her statement of having had worse, rising up to his feet and carefully peeking around the corner to make sure that the vets have headed off and haven't taken the bike with them. As he leans, the cab company picks up, and he gives the cabby their address. That covered, he turns his attention back to the bloodied young woman, "Not much else to do in New York. When you're like…" a grimacing little shrug, and Castle gestures between the two vigilantes. "Gimme a sec." He heads out to the parking lot again to get the bike and wheel it into the alley. Once he's back, and they're left to wait for the cab, he waits in silence for a minute or two, then says, "Okay, I'll bite. What were you in New York for, Red?"

*

Barbara watches him with that half-tilted head. She brushes a bit of sweaty hair back behind her ears, now feeling the coolness of the autumn night. She slowly pulls her jacket closed around her, zipping it back up to her neck. She arches her brows slightly at the gesture he gives between them, and then her smile turns rueful. "Us?" She then rests once more, watching him trot out to get her bike. It has a minor scrape across the armor, and when she rubs at it, it clears up to reveal the almost untouched black matte of the bike. When she looks back up at him, it's to smile a bit at his question. "Check on my friend Bette… and visit an old college friend." She's not ready to talk about what she discussed with Murdock. Not yet. She's still… unpacking it.

*

"Yeah." Nudging the kickstand into place, Frank studies the bike, "That's some hot shit right there, Red. Should've made Humvees outta that shit. Or made Marines outta it." He nods his acceptance of her explanation, "They all doin' okay with…?" he waves a hand out towards the dead demon bodies. It's awkward, Frank Castle making small-talk, or maybe it's the pain leaching into the corners of his brain from the two slashes that still haven't been seen to, or the bullet wound at his side that's burning from all the motion, or the itch that's started up on his hands, face, and throat where the demon-blood splashed.

*

Barbara has been so focus at her own pain that she only just starts to worry about Frank's. She looks to him, eyes opening to study his face. A frown starts to tug into place. "Yeah, they're OK. I mean, both are a bit worse for wear, but what the hell do you expect with this?" She gestures the same as him, and then she reaches out to touch Frank's forearm. "You're going to let me patch you up back at your place," she says, not really allowing much wiggle room in his response back.

*

Frank nods at her description of her friends' circumstances, accepting that as about the best possible outcome. The touch to his arm and her statement of intent cause Frank to scowl faintly, "That SAS guy teach you all about field medicine?" He grunts and shrugs a little, "I can stitch 'em up." Probably not, actually, considering the contortions that he would have to do to reach the end of the one across the top of his left shoulder, to say nothing of the one across the back of his ribs.

*

"Stop being an asshole." The words are delivered dryly, if not with some first heartbeats of growing affection. She shoves at his shoulder slightly before she glances up, spotting the yellow cab as it pulls up in front of the church. "Come give the driver your address, and then we can get holed up somewhere and I can duct tape you up." She hesitates. "Please say you have something to eat? If not, we're pit-stopping."

*

Frank looks like he's going to deny being an asshole for a moment, then he considers it and just shrugs, rocking with the shove at his shoulder and grimacing slightly. He glances to the bike, then leaves it in the alley, offering Barbara his shoulder again to walk her to the cab, "Yeah, I got food." There's a pause as he considers his definition of food versus everyone else's and then re-inventories and reaffirms, "Yeah. I got a frozen pizza." Opening the door, he leans in to give the driver an address that just barely cleared the bar of respectable far enough to avoid being turned to rubble by the bombs.

*

Barbara eases into the cab, wincing a bit as she does. She leans her head back into the seat, and then glances to Frank. "Don't crash my bike." Then she reaches to close the door so they can head off to Frank's place. She's going to have to give him a hard time about the frozen pizza thing, but she'll wait until they are safely tucked away in a demon-free zone.

*

"Pretty sure it'd survive even if I didn't." Frank peels several bills out of his pocket and passes them to the driver, enough to cover the ride and the tip alike, then nods, "Be there soon. Door's locked, sorry." He doesn't go straight back to the bike, though, heading into the church to check on Curtis and reassure him that he made it out of the fight. He also pretty unsuccessfully hides the fact that he's hurt, but successfully avoids getting tended to right then and there. He has somewhere to be, after all.

Frank's apartment is on the ground floor, despite the security risk that is, but at least there are bars on the few windows. When he arrives, he tucks the bike into the alley behind and pulls the keys and Barbara's stuff from the back. The door takes two keys and a kick to the bottom corner in order to get it opened, and then there's a whuffing dog snuffling around for attention. The living room is normal enough, probably pre-furnished, but it feels a little too full. Probably because the bedroom has been turned into an armory and one closet into a serial-killer-target-tracking-wall. The 'kitchen' is really just a kitchenette, but at least there's an oven and a microwave and a hot plate.

*

The cab ride was not exactly a fun adventure for her. The cab driver spent the entire drive giving her a very, very hard time about Frank, and about the place he's taking her to, and doesn't she have a father who would disapprove, or he's not paying her for something is she? She considers straggling the cabby the moment they are pulled up at the curb, and she scoots out before she can make a poor judgement call. She does flip off the cab when it darts back into the streets, and then she waits for Frank outside his door.

She has her eyes closed when he comes her way, but there's something in her posture that suggests she's not letting her defenses drop. She looks up the moment she hears Frank come down the hallway, and then she stands up to nod to him. When the door opens, and she hears the dog, she brightens. "Hi Max." She steps into the dog, ruffing up his ears and forehead and neck, and she lets him kiss her all over her hands before she kneels down painfully to greet him with her own kisses to his soft head. "Being a good dog?" She glances around once she's inside, and something about the interior — well, it doesn't surprise her. She wishes she wasn't expecting it.

*

Max seems happy to see both Frank and Babs, and Castle grunts, "Yeah. I'll have to take him out in a bit." Frank reaches down to bat Max on the side, grunting in pain as he does. "Lemme look at this. Food's in the cupboards and the freezer if you get hungry before I get done." He kicks the door closed and turns the deadbolts, then heads past the bedroom-turned armory to the little tiled bathroom. The spartan nature of the apartment doesn't seem to bother Frank. It probably even seems comfortable. A low crackle of sound comes from the bedroom, recognizable to the daughter of a police commissioner as the highly-illegal-to-own-as-a-civilian police-band radio. Frank shrugs out of his jacket and tosses it toward the little shower, slowly pulling his now-one-armed-hoodie off afterwards, and then his black t-shirt that's become stained with demon blood. His torso has not just the stitched and stapled through-and-through bullet wound and the two slices from the demon-held blades, but layer upon layer of bruises, scars, and scrapes.

*

Barbara showers Max with another dose of affection before she stands — gingerly and a little tenderly. She glances to the window before she steps after Frank briefly, only to pause to look around the cans of food. She opens the old freezer, spotting the pizza box. She hefts it up, turns it over, and frowns at the directions. She eyes the oven suspiciously before sets the temperature to 425-degrees. She steps toward Frank's bedroom, catching the straight shot into the bathroom at the state of the Punisher. She hesitates there just in the doorway, and then she steps into Frank's sleeping space. "You going to let me help?" The question is offered quietly, and she nods to the cut along his shoulder. To see everything in real time… how is Frank even standing these days?

*

Frank studies himself in the mirror, twisting to get a look at the full arc of the slice on his shoulder. The motion pulls at his side, however, and he grimaces, shaking his head and turning his back to the mirror to try and figure out how he's going to stitch it himself. Finally, he grunts and nods, "Yeah. Don't have much choice." And he sounds sour about that, getting a fishing tackle box from under the sink and balancing it on one corner. He pops it open to reveal a wide selection of first-aid tools and materials. "You know what you're doin' with it?"

The bedroom is… uninviting. It's small and windowless, and covered in firearms. There's a tripod-mounted minigun in the corner, grenade launchers, shotguns, machine guns, pistols, and everything in between, plus crates of ammo for all of them. It's a little obscene really, and might even make some gun nuts cream their jeans.

*

And Barbara Gordon is not a gun nut. She looks over the bedroom in a single glance, and she shifts slightly from one foot to another before she looks back to Frank. The sight of the first aid equipment does arch her brows slightly, but his sourness pauses her slightly. Then her mouth sets and she nods. "Yes, I know what I'm doing." She steps forward to begin to gather up what she needs — two little packs of wipes, a couple of pads, and some gauze. She even gets those little suture bandages to help bring the deepest part of the cut back together. Then she nods at him. "Go sit down." She glances one more time at the collection of guns. "Did I miss a big arms sale?"

*

Washing his hands briefly, Frank nods his acceptance at her reassurance. At least he's willing to take her at her word, even if he had to ask first. At her urging, he moves over to a kitchen chair, turning it around and straddling the back to expose his back. There's a little glance toward the bedroom, and he shrugs, "Previous owner doesn't need them." And then he relents a little, "Blacksmith. Guess drugs weren't the only things that came back from the 'Stan."

*

There's a certain kind of silence that settles around her. She's thoughtful, focused, and listening. She tears open a pack of small wipes, and begins to clean the shoulder as she stands behind him. Her hand braces lightly on his other shoulder, steadying herself as she works the wipe across the bloodied slash. Then she drops it onto the table to be brushed into the trash once she's done. She pulls open the small pair of suture bandages, and she looks at him from her looming spot over his shoulder. The relenting information draws her eyes back down to the slice. "Good." It's a quiet, firm word that carries so much unsaid. Like: Fucking Bastard. Then she starts to set the suture bandages, tugging the wound close with her fingers and then placing the bandages to hold the wound together.

*

Frank's features pinch as she washes the wound, but he doesn't make a sound as she wipes and gathers his flesh. The last tug, however, causes him to wince and grunt. His eyes close for a moment, and then he opens them again. "Most of it's kind of a waste. No use for an M60 or a minigun against a couple of shitbird cockroaches." He does his best to keep his back still, "Go ahead and do it, Red. Like a bandaid."

*

"Castle." Barbara's voice is just faintly laced with amusement. "I think you're going to figure out when to use a minigun." Then she breathes out a slow exhale, looking at the wounds. She sets her jaw a bit, nods, and then starts to actually do things quicker, more methodically. She presses his skin together, places a sticky suture, then moves up an inch and does the same again. She takes a moment halfway through to open the second cleaning wipe, moping away the seep of blood that comes from the still-opened part of the wound. She glances over his body once more — the way his whole body wears the story of his life since the death of his family. She breathes out a slow exhale and continues her work.

*

"I figure the demons will start swarming and the cops won't care where the firepower comes from." Frank leans forward over the back of the chair to expose more of his back to her attentions. "Or maybe I'll see what that dragon's doin'." There's a little chuckle of laugh despite the pain, "Whole lot of guys in the Corps thought they were dragonslayers or crusaders. Idiots."

*

"They probably won't," says the daughter of a cop. She works quietly again until she has the wound sutured, and then she begins the less painful process of bandaging the wound. She looks up toward him briefly, blue eyes focused on what little of Frank's face she can see from looming behind him. "Why were you at the church… with the veterans?"

*

Frank half-turns his head as Babs responds, chuckling again and doing his best to smother it so she can keep working. The question that follows, however, causes him to look down again, a scowl settling onto his features. After a long moment of silence, he answers, "I know a guy who runs a group there. Best devil doc I ever knew." There's another moment where he considers opening up fully, but instead he deflects somewhat with, "I stopped by to listen in outside. See how deep the bullshit was."

*

The deflection drops Barbara's eyes as she finishes up with his shoulder. She gathers up the trash, crinkling it in her hands before she drops it all into the trash. She loosens her braid as she stands there, tugging out each layer of the plait until she can start to comb her fingers through it. She twists her hair together into a loose knot at the side of her neck. "So. How deep is it?"

*

"Some of it's pretty deep. Some of it… not so much," Frank admits. Twisting slightly and wincing as both slashes pull at his back, he watches her pull down her hair out of the corner of his eye. "You want me to do a real job on your side, Red? I'm not the canker surgeon your SAS guy is, but I can stitch it if you want."

*

The woman looks tired as she rests against the wall, and she would have almost drifted into a half-sleep if not for the words that cut through her thoughts. She turns slightly toward him, and then she steps forward with a nod. "Half-considered playing your stubborn game, but then I realized I'm not that stupid." She quirks a half-smile toward him. She pushes off the wall, taking off her jacket with the same grimace that Frank had for his own. She's careful with it, setting it on the table in Frank's so-called kitchen. She looks down at her t-shirt, frowning at it. "I need to stop buying things I like wearing…" Then she moves to take a seat.

*

Frank snorts softly at her half-threat, "Need be skull from ear to ear to be as good at it as me." He digs into the dresser against one wall in the living room, pulling out a plain t-shirt, pausing, and pulling out a second one. One gets tossed over to Barbara, and then he starts to pull the other one on, moving gingerly and with winces, but still moving. He collects more wipes, another bandage, and a needle and surgical thread from the kit, dropping it off at the table and then heading for the kitchen to put the pizza in the oven, "Or just buy more of 'em. But I guess if you try to buy two dozen cute shirts all the same, someone's gonna start askin' questions why you need so many."

*

Barbara catches the t-shirt. She feels the fabric, rubbing it between her fingers as she follows his movements. When he sees to the pizza, she ducks herself out of her LIBRARY CHIC(K) shirt and sets it on the table. She's not as mapped as Frank with bruises and cuts, but the night the Blacksmith went down is still a story on her skin. She adjusts the strap of her sports bra before her fingertips drop lower to touch the hoodie bandages that Frank had used. Then she breathes a slow breath as she starts removing the duct tape. She starts slow, and then grimaces at the pulling on her skin. Finally, she grits her teeth and yanks, pulling it completely free in one confident move. Her skin reddened where the heavy-duty adhesive had secured to her skin. "Hmph," she grunts, and then shrugs. "Maybe just a couple extras… instead of two dozen."

*

When Frank comes back to what passes for a dining area, he frowns at the recent scar at her shoulder, then looks back down to the red-rimmed area around the re-opened shrapnel wound, "Gotta go like a bandaid or it hurts like hell." He turns the chair around so he can sit on it, getting out the first of the wipes and starting to clean the remnants of the adhesive off first, "Hydrogen peroxide for the blood. But you probably know that. Me, I just wear dark clothes and throw 'em out." He sets aside the used wipe, opening another and beginning to clean the re-opened wound, "You told me you were gonna be outta action for at least a week." Even if it's been exactly a week already. "That your guy wanted you out for two weeks."

*

"I… didn't actually know that." Her brows arch high. "To be honest, I wear about as much black as you do when I'm actually in a place of where I get blood on me." Barbara sits with her back pressed against the chair, and her arms twist behind her to open her belly up to Frank and to also give her an anchor. She fists her fingers together, breathing out a slow breath when he starts to clean away the adhesive. When he gets to the wound, she breathes in a sharp hiss and then holds the sound and air in her chest as he works on cleaning away the blood. His words cause her to look at him with a frown. "… I could have gone around the other corner and bypassed them. But they were heading for a church." She looks a combination of diffident and stubborn… and altruism. There's a lot of heart there.

*

Frank shrugs a little helplessly, "Kids." As if that explains how someone knows how to deal with blood on clothing. The wipes are set aside in turn, and he studies the wound, "If I stitch that up, it's gonna leave a mark." As some of the work around his own body suggests. "You want to wait for your SAS guy?" Leaning on one forearm placed on his thigh, he starts to gather up a new bandage, evidently assuming that she's going to choose to avoid the needle right now. "What would've happened if there wasn't anyone who could fight there?" Besides 'probably the same thing Frank would've done if she hadn't shown up — get a beat-down.'

*

Barbara arches her brow slightly at Frank, amused by the Kids rejoinder. Then she breathes out a slower breath again, and then nods. "Just use those suture bandages to hold it together. I'll take an easy ride back home." Then she leans her head back again, closing her eyes. She speaks quietly, thoughtfully. "I would have done all I could… that's what we do." Then she tilts her head back to look at him. "What would you have done if I hadn't shown up?" She smirks slightly, as if knowing his own answer is about the same as hers. She stills herself, letting him get her temporarily closed up and bandaged.

*

He's already grabbing one, and pulling it out of its packaging. One hand gathers her skin together, the other putting one side of the bandage in place, and then finishing the job. He's… definitely done this before. It's not a perfectly neat job, but it's functional, and it's fast. "I would've hurt 'em bad enough that they couldn't hurt the people inside." There's a stubborn surety to the statement, along with more than a little fatalism. Clearly, in Frank's mind, he might not have survived doing that job, but he damned sure would have done it.

*

"I'm glad I showed up," Barbara says quietly, and then hisses out a soft breath when he gets the wound closed up. Then she relaxes once he's done and getting the bandage in place. Only once he's done does she touch it, feeling around the edges of the bandage and tape. Then she reaches painfully for the shirt that Frank had given her, and she eases it on slowly. She sits quietly there for a few heartbeats, and then she reaches out to touch Frank's hand, curling long fingers around the blade of his hand. She's lost her tentativeness around Frank, and merely squeezes his hand gently. The silence is a blessing between the two vigilantes.

*

Frank releases her pale skin once the bandage is in place, then gives her hand a nudge as she starts to poke at the bandage, "Leave it alone." Then he settles into silence, drawing in a breath and stretching his back again. Give gives a little grunt of pain, but generally just settles into his seat. When Barbara reaches out for his hand and squeezes it, he blinks and looks down at the connection, then just gives a little shrug to himself and stays silent. After long minutes, the oven gives a little beep. Pizza's ready.

*

Barbara loosens her grip, withdrawing back into herself. She rubs her hands across her thighs, and then — pressing against them — she stands. She winces slightly, but then she breathes out a slow exhale as she moves to the oven. She flicks off the little timer, and then she grabs a towel so she can extricate the pizza out of the oven. She nudges the oven closed. She brings the hot pizza to the table, setting it down where it steams and fills the little apartment with the smells of pepperoni. She holds out her hand to Frank almost expectantly, brow arched. "Knife?" Because the idea of Frank having a pizza cutter in this place is definitely out of place.

*

Frank watches her stand, just a little tensed as he waits to see how she manages. When she gets going, however, he nods, and pushes himself up to his own feet with a little grunt of pain. The request for his knife reminds him that his blade was buried in demon-guts not too long ago, and so he nods over toward the kitchen, heading in that direction himself. Frank Castle definitely doesn't have a pizza cutter. He barely has silverware. He pulls open a drawer and gets out a kitchen knife, passing it over to his fellow vigilante handle-first. "Need to clean mine." There's a moment of pause, and then he adds, "Don't really want demon pizza."

*

Barbara takes the knife with an amused twitch at the corners of her mouth. "They might taste like chicken." There's something strangely domestic about cutting up pizza, but then you frame it as Batgirl cutting up pizza for the Punisher — and that just makes it stranger. She cuts the pizza into fourths and then sets it down on the table. She drops tenderly into the chair, breathing out a slow exhale before she picks up one of the piping hot quarters of pizza. Barbara tucks a bit of fallen red hair behind her ear, and something in her just releases. Tension and exhaustion and everything else, and she tucks into the pizza in silence.

*

"Or give us the shits." And there's the difference between Barbara and Frank. She looks on the bright side — or at least acknowledges it — and he looks on the dark side — or at least prepares for it. He turns on the water in the sink as hot as it goes and lets it heat up while she's cutting up the pizza. Castle glances over to her as she sinks into the plain chair and begins to eat her pizza, and something about the scene makes him chuckle as he looks back to washing off his knife in the hot water. It gets a little scrubbing, then a careful drying, and goes back in its sheath. It can be oiled later. Then he follows the scent of the pizza over to the table and drops into the chair opposite Barbara, wincing as he thumps down on at least one or two bruises on his ass. There's a little roll of his eyes as if to shake off the wince, and then he grabs a chunk of pizza, folding it over and starting to inhale it, lapsing into companionable silence.

*

With a half-hearted shrug, Barbara silently acknowledges Frank's alternative world. She's definitely not going to test out either theory. Demon is not on the menu. When he sits down and winces, she just looks up briefly with a questioning arch of brows. But that's it, not daring to interrupt the silence that flows around the pair. And that's how the two stay as they eat their pizza. Barbara eats both of her quarters, leaving Frank his own half. She crunches her way through the overcooked crust, obviously believing that eating the crust is part of the experience of eating pizza. She gets up, grabs what looks to be a reusable 7-11 cup off one of the shelves, and fills it with water from the tap. She catches sight of the coffee machine, and that becomes something she notes in her brain for later. "Water?" She asks over her shoulder to him.

*

Frank feeds his face with the efficiency of a soldier, devouring both of his quarters, then stands up and starts toward the kitchenette again — just as she does. He snorts a half-laugh and gestures for her to go on ahead of him before he goes to get out a packet of ready-mix tuna casserole. "Naw. I'll put on some coffee." Hefting the package, he inquires, "Want something else? Soup, chili, some MREs, protein bars." As he waits, he brings the coffee pot over to the sink, filling it up and starting to get it brewing. If that's his life according to food… Frank Castle lives a pretty sad life.

*

Barbara arches her brows at Frank, and then a sudden laugh escapes her and she shakes her head. "You're not much of a cooking person, are you?" She shrugs her shoulder a bit as she takes a sip from the water cup. She runs her brain back through the list of choices. Never one to really concern herself with calorie intake — being a vigilante is the best high-impact exercise program on the planet — she is more uncertain of the quality of her calories in Frank Castle's den of fugitive status. But food is vital to healing, and she has a long road of that ahead. "Chili. Got hot sauce?" She scans the kitchen for a likely place for a saucepan, and finds a camping-style one in a cabinet by the oven. She pops it onto the hot plate and waits for Frank to toss her a can, thankful that she sees an easy pull-tab on the top of the lid — sorry, but Barbara does not know how to open a can with a knife. She grew up with can-openers.

*

Looking vaguely offended at her question about cooking, Frank grunts sourly, "Got more important things to do." Violent, horrible things to do, if his battered body and stricken soul are anything to show for it. He collects a can and tosses it over to her, snorting softly, "'Course. You don't serve without comin' back with hot sauce." He pulls open the fridge, demonstrating that there isn't a whole lot in there, but there is a giant bottle of hot sauce. Good, scorching stuff. That gets set on the counter alongside her, and then he attends to his packet of tuna casserole, mixing it up carefully, "Why do you do it, Red? It ain't grief."

*

Barbara looks a bit exasperated at that, tilting a look toward Frank. "Good, quality calories are important." Then she cracks open the can and dumps it into the pan. She doctors it with hot sauce to knock it up several levels before she lets the can of chili simmer over the hot plate. She crosses an arm across her belly in an almost protective gesture — a residue of Jason Todd's attack that still has her shoulder tender. The question turns her slightly to him, and then she looks back to her pot. "I… it seems really… juvenile now." Her words are soft. "Jim Gordon is my uncle…" She glances toward him. "My parents died when I was barely a teenager. Car accident on the way to a competition, and the medical examiner said it was my dad. He was a drunk." She shrugs her shoulders slightly. "So, I went to live with Uncle Jim. He took me in as a daughter, but was always protective of me. He… he was scared of something, something I never figured out. But when I went off to study criminal law and started talking about becoming a cop… he freaked out. Like I was getting too close to something that really scared him." Barbara shakes the pan a bit as the chili bubbles. "I wanted to be just like him. I thought I could do it, too. So…" She breathes out a slow exhale.

"I went to a party at Christmas… and these men attacked. I did something really stupid, and tried to save some of the hostages. I secured about half of them, and then went to actually try to take down the attackers. Then Batman showed up, and the leader of the group fled." Her story is said softly, remembered in a dreamlike vagueness. Until it becomes vivid. "I was furious at Batman. He actually gave me shit," the word is not a common one, but it holds anger for Barbara as she reflects, "told me that I shouldn't do this. And I heard my dad's voice… Jim's voice… I was fed up. I wanted to prove them both that there's this part of me that was being untouched, neglected… withering under this protectiveness. Smothered." She glances at Frank, and her expression is rueful.

"So, I tracked the guy who got away down, beat the crap out of him, and dropped him off at the steps of the nearest precinct. I signed the note 'Batgirl.' I think Batman must have been watching my progress, because… then I was Batgirl, and there was no going back. I transferred back home, went to school close enough to make Dad less freaked, and got a masters in library science… and became Batgirl."

*

Frank shrugs a little helplessly at the comment about good quality calories, "Good protein in these," he hefts the casserole bag, "MREs are high sodium, but good." Tilting his head to one side, he lets out a low little chuckle, "It ain't like I'm gonna die of old age here." But then he goes silent, letting her respond to his question as he eats the tuna. His brows rise as she mentions her parents dying, and that it was from a drunk driving accident. He interjects only one question, at the mention of a competition, "Gymnastics?" Beyond that, he keeps quiet, nodding his understanding at her feelings of being stifled by her uncle — or at her uncle's desire to keep her from danger. His eyes drop, and his jaw works as he jabs and stirs at the casserole once more. When she's done, he draws in a deep breath that causes him to wince at the pain in his side and back, then looks up, "So you got into it to prove you could. Did that. Why do you keep doin' it?"

*

Gymnastics? Barbara actually laughs softly at that, shaking her head as she tilts a look at Frank. "Robotics." Then she slides her hands into the pockets of her motocross pants, eyes watching the chili bubble. Then she cuts a glance back to him briefly. "Because I'm doing good… because I'm helping where… especially in Gotham… it's hard to help. My dad works really hard to bring… honesty, integrity, and truth to the job, but there's always enough to keep him from doing what Gotham needs. There's dirty cops everywhere, there's always some district attorney who is arguing that we should be giving the worst of the worst second chances, and… but the Bats? We're feared, and we're respected, and we have done what people like my dad couldn't. He respects us, too… that bat that they shine into the sky… that was my dad's idea. He gets it… that we do what his hands are tied against doing." She shrugs her shoulders a bit. "And… it feels like what I'm supposed to do… to protect that city. If it means I'm wearing a costume to do it… a cape — " She shoots him a smirking look. " — then that's what I'm going to do."

*

"The mission's not done." Frank's statement is apparently one of agreement. At least to that part. He shifts restively at the mention of soft-hearted DAs and dirty cops, but he smothers his initial instinct to go on his jag about final solutions. Instead, he gestures toward her with the butt end of his fork, bruised brows lifting in challenging question, "You don't think you could do it without the cape? Without the mask?"

*

"No." Barbara blinks a slightly at that. "I guess it's not. I'm not sure if there's an end-condition to a mission like that." Then she finally uses the dishtowel to get the pan off the hotplate, and she sets it down carefully on the stove. She is then grabbing for what looks like a thrift store bowl, and she dumps the chili into it without the use of a ladle. From there, she's able to take a spoon from Frank's sole utensil drawer. She's leaning against the counter now, settling into the high fat, high protein, high calorie, high additives meal. She glances up at him at his challenge, and her frown builds slightly. "And what? Become Barbara Gordon the Vigilante?" She frowns deeper. "Red?" She slumps a bit as she stirs up her bowl. "No… it would kill Dad. And then it would destroy him… politically, socially. And it would be harder to do my job, get the work done. People would know who I was, who I cared about… who to target. My family would be in danger." She looks up at him. "I have a lot of enemies out there… people who could and would do really bad things if they knew who I was." Her throat tightens a bit. "I'm risking a lot… now that Owen Mercer knows who I am."

*

"Should talk to your superior officer," there's a faint smirk behind the words, "'cause a mission without an end-point's a shitty mission." Frank shrugs at the response to his challenge, letting her work through the words and the thoughts behind them. "If you're gonna take on a mission, you gotta give it everything you've got." He scrapes around for the last of the casserole in its bag, chewing it and swallowing, "Easy for me to say, I know. I don't got anything left to give but blood and sweat." He looks down for a moment, then toes open the cabinet under the sink and throws away the baggie. The fork he immediately starts washing, "You think he'd get you in trouble? Seemed like a flake to me, but not really a bad guy." The fork goes into the empty drying rack, and then he starts cleaning the still-cooling hotplate, holding it with the dish towel to do so. There's something that's both totally alien and yet also totally comfortable about Frank Castle doing the dishes.

*

Barbara watches this domestic task with a slight bemused expression. She watches him for a long moment before she finally responds. "I don't think so… Owen… he's not the same Mercer that I remember. Which… I guess is some grand statement that perhaps some of them can change for the good." She looks up at Frank and she shifts slightly against the counter. "He promises the reason he left was for a good cause… I don't know what it was, but he reached out afterwards… we talked a bit. I don't know." She shrugs her shoulders. "I just got to hope he won't use what he knows in a way that puts the people I care about in danger." She takes another bite of her chili, watching Frank work with slightly furrowed brows. She shifts slightly again, feeling awkward. "Frank… what are you going to do? When it's all done?"

*

Just like most things Frank Castle does, he cleans dishes thoroughly. Every crack and crevice is checked and scrubbed, ensuring that all the chili is cleansed from the hot-plate. He sets it on the counter a moment, swaps dish towels, and starts drying it off. "Seems to me like he'd use it to sting you, but not to hurt you." Unfortunately, his efficiency leaves him without anything to do when she talks about after. Looking down at his hands, Frank goes quiet, rubbing at the webbing of one thumb with his other thumb. "Don't know. Can't think about it now anyway. Got a mission to finish, and I'm close enough to taste it." Frustration builds, and he turns away, going over to push the chairs in and clean up the cardboard from the pizza with maybe a little more force than necessary. "Just those five last cockroaches… plus the late addition."

*

She watches him as she stirs up a bit of her chili. It distracts her from trying to offer the man comfort — comfort she's not sure he wants. Needs, certainly, but not wants. "You should think about it, Frank." Her voice is gentle. "You…" Her mouth tightens a bit. "I don't think that there will be much left of you, Frank, if you don't have something to pull you back into the world." She drops her eyes, taking another bite of chili in a distracted way. She breathes out a slow breath, coming back to something that caught her attention. "Late addition?" Her brows arch slightly, and a frown settles onto her list. Maybe in passing Frank had mentioned Fisk being on his list, but it doesn't slip easily into her memory now.

*

"I'll think about it when I'm done with the mission, Red. Until then…" Frank shakes his head, "Can't do it. I've gotta finish this." The chili can gets washed next, and then Frank shrugs slightly, "Fisk. After the trial. Other people should get closure on that one, but you don't come back from eight thousand dead." He rolls his shoulders a little, "He's… well, he's an add-on. It ain't the same. He's gotta go, but the others…" his trigger finger twitches idly at his side, "The others I gotta have, as quick as I can without fucking it up."

*

The mention of Fisk stalls Barbara from pressing Frank more. She blinks in surprise at him, mouth opening a bit. Then she stutters through her words. "Wh-why Fisk? Frank, there's no way you're going to be able to get to him… he'll be under the highest security that New York City can offer… maybe even more than they can offer. How are you going to get to Fisk without…" Her words stall, and she actually looks deeply worried for Frank. "Without getting yourself killed." She fiddles with rest of the chili, and then glances to Max. "You like hot sauce?" Her appetite has waned.

*

Barbara's reaction to the name is somehow gratifying, Frank's lips curling into a smirk. "It helps a whole lot when you don't have to take 'em alive. Bit more range on a Barrett," .50 caliber anti-materiel rifle, "than a batarang." Glancing down to the dog, who looks very interested in the chili, "He'll eat anything. Even if he gets plenty of his own food." Leaning back against the rickety kitchen table, he shrugs a little helplessly, "If it takes dying to get the mission done, Red, that's what happens, but I'm not lookin' to die."

*

Slowly and tenderly, the woman lowers down into a cross-legged seat on the ground, leaning against the cabinet. She smiles at Max, offering out her bowl to him on the floor in front of her. She scrubs up his ears when he comes up to her, bowing over her offered food. It gives her something to distract herself from, only glancing up at Frank when he offers the fatalist perspective. Her mouth sets, jaw flexing under unspoken words. Only when she feels Max bump the bowl against her shin does she finally speak the words roiling about in her head. "I would prefer you alive."

*

Max nuzzles his head in close to Barbara's leg as she settles in, snuffling at the bowl as soon as it's offered up. Frank watches the dog eat, "Hey, so would I." The coffee machine beeps, and he pushes up to fill two mugs. He should probably ask if she wants any, but everybody always wants coffee in Frank Castle's world. "But that ain't always how bein' a soldier works, Red." He nods her way, then moves over to offer out one full mug, "You always know you're gonna come back from bein' a Bat? Sometimes the job's more important than coming home from it."

*

"Just thought you'd like to hear those words from someone else still breathing the same air as you." Barbara watches Max settle into the bowl, and she gently scratches at his head and neck. She feels his weight settle into her, and she relaxes slightly with the big dog. He is quite a comfort. Then she looks up to spot the mug being offered to her, and she takes it in silent thanks. She's not much of a coffee drinker, but she takes it because it has good will behind it… and it warms her hands. "But I try to do everything I can to come back, Frank." There's a silent accusation there. You don't.

*

He hadn't really thought of it that way, but the slight lift of his brows, but Frank considers it, taking a long sip of his coffee and letting his eyes close for a moment. "I've come back from every mission so far." Which isn't to say that it hasn't been a close-run thing a couple of times. "That ain't to say I'll make it back from all of them, but I always plan a way out." Mostly because Frank Castle is just too damned stubborn not to do things right, which includes coming back alive. "Thanks, Red. For thinkin' that."

*

The thanks is accepted wearier than she thought it would be, but she nods and takes a small sip of the coffee. The bitterness isn't as bad as she expected, surprised that perhaps Frank actually knows how to make a good cup of coffee. She rubs her fingers all around Max's ear, and her head rests back against the cabinet. When he offers his thanks, she glances up toward him. "As long as you always have a way out." Then she takes another sip of the coffee before her eyes close, warm coffee cup pressed up against her cheek, hand cradling it around the handle of the mug. She sleepily scratches at Max's head.

*

"Until the last one." There's some soldier's gallow's humor, and Frank shrugs it off. He takes another sip of his coffee, then sets it aside, "You're gonna fall asleep on the floor." He offers out both of his hands, "Come on, Red, you can have the couch." By the blankets and pillow folded up under the end-table, that's where he's been sleeping.

*

Barbara looks up at him at the gallow's humor, and her mouth sets into a weary line that can't be a frown… or a smile at this point. She just sighs and reaches up over her head to artfully slide the coffee mug on the countertop. She ruffles up Max. "You can sleep with me," she says to the dog, who licks her fingers happily with that butt-wagging tail. "Alright, but the floor really isn't uncomfortable." Then she reaches up for Frank's hands, and together — with pain and some low groaning — they haul her to her feet.

*

"It would be when you woke up," promises Castle as he leans back with a grunt to let his body weight do most of the effort of hauling her up. He steps back, studying her youthful features for a long moment. Then he nods once, turning to gather his pistol, magazines, and knife up and head toward the bedroom-turned-armory. He has some cleaning to do before he sleeps.

*

Barbara furrows her brows slightly under that studying look, and then she looks down at Max. She nods him to the couch, leading the way. Her eyes track after Frank briefly before she sees to making her bed. She grabs for the pillow and blankets, shaking them both out habitually. She plops down the pillow on one end of the couch, and then sits. She works off her boots, and socks, and settles onto the couch. Max hops up beside her, which is no surprise to Babs because the couch smells like — when Castle isn't sleeping on it — Max sleeps on it. She smiles ruefully to the dog, and then gives him a playful nudge with her feet before she starts to sprawl. She sleeps up on her side, arm curled under her head. She breathes out a slow exhale, and says quietly toward the bedroom, "Goodnight, Frank."

*

Max whines a little at the nudge, then rolls over and burrows in, feet up, back into Barbara's shins. He's likely in doggy heaven, since there's someone warm to curl up with and they take up less of the couch than Frank does. On Castle's part, he sets his weapons down on a desk in the bedroom, then comes back out to grab a jacket for a blanket and a couple of t-shirts for a pillow, then heads back into the armory, "Night, Red." As he starts to clean the weapons, he looks over the map of the five boroughs hanging in the closet next to the skull-painted bulletproof vest, bright green, red, and blue dots marking the possible locations of targets. A whole lot of them have little black Xs over them. Under his breath, he starts to recite the story he knows by heart, "One batch, two batch, penny and dime…"

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