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*

The desert builds a storm in his lungs.

 

He can taste the coarse sand on his tongue. Feels as though it gets stuck between his teeth so bad that he will still be brushing little grains out from between them months after now. He coughs once, twice, but the scraping sensation in his throat does not dissipate. He huffs out a hot breath. Watches it unfurl in almost-white vapour that vanishes into the night air.

 

Frank Castle hunches in on himself and waits.

 

He sits wedged between the rooftop's edge and an airconditioning unit that has officially seen better days. Has his feet up against the unit's side and a gun cradled in his lap. It's not desert-cold in this city, even though fall is giving way to winter's ice on his breath. Still, this space he's crafted for himself feels like he's back in the dirt-filled trenches of the war. Feels like he's right back in the bone-deep chill of the nights spent listening to faraway bomb detonations and closeby murmured prayers.

 

He leans back until his head touches brick and mortar. Stuffs his hands into his jacket's sleeves best he can, but can't prevent the cold from seeping into the tips of his fingers. Flexes his fingers experimentally and wishes not for the first time that he had not lost his best pair of gloves to the Hudson's dirty water in that shitfest of a shooting last week.

 

It's a good thing he doesn't really plan on shooting anybody tonight.

 

Oh, he's sure that the men he's tailing deserve a bullet in their skull for their troubles. He's been watching them for three days now. Has spotted at least twenty different felonies in that time. They're scum, one and all, but he refrains from taking the shots that would put them down.

 

Waiting is not mercy. It's necessity.

 

His hand folds around the newspaper clipping he's carried with him for five days now. Human trafficking. Child trafficking. His lips curl into a feral snarl. He knows the information in the article checks out. She wouldn't write anything that wasn't true. He knows that. He knows that, even when words escape him at the sight of her name in print and a gunshot echoes in his skull time and time again when he hears anything about her exploits.

 

Frank Castle is dead, and dead people can wait a long time on the living.

 

*

 

He doesn't enjoy what he does.

 

He tells himself that, but can't stop the smile that curves at his mouth at the sound of a terrified scumbag pleading for his life. Can't help the hollow chuckle that tumbles from his lips when the pleas turn into tears. Crouches down next to the man and scrunches up his nose at the snivelling that greets him.

 

"Now, don't be like that," he admonishes, exasperation seeping through his voice of its own accord. "You know you ain't gonna live. Gotta make your peace with that."

 

He heaves a sigh when the man's sobs intensify. He ain't got the patience to deal with anyone's fear of death. Thinks it speaks volumes that the man ain't made his peace with any of that. Scumbag probably thought he'd live to a comfortable age. Die in his bed, old and grey, surrounded by the worst of his excesses. Seems about right.

 

The man goes perfectly still when the barrel of Frank's gun presses against his forehead. Even the sound of his fear dissipates upon the weapon's contact with his skin. Frank huffs out a breath, wild and hot like the desert storm that's settled into his bones, and fixes the man with a glare.

 

"Now, where's the girl?"

 

"W-w-what girl?"

 

"Don't be like that," he breathes, and it takes all his willpower to not just shove the barrel into the man's mouth and pull the trigger. "Stupid don't suit you."

 

The man swallows visibly. "S-she's downstairs, next to the kitchen."

 

Something in the man's voice gives him pause. His throat goes dry. Sand constricts his lungs. He scrapes his throat desperately. Feels his eyes burn. "Downstairs how?" he snaps. Can't keep the frantic edge out of his voice. "How?"

 

The man murmurs something unintelligible. He can barely make out the words. Hears something about the girl resting comfortably, about her being in a good place after her ordeal. His nerves fray at the choice of words. He doesn't believe the man's platitudes. Doesn't believe any of it.

 

The storm inside him doesn't fade. It comes to life inside him until the scorching heat blazes forth and grabs the man by the throat. He jams the gun's barrel into the man's mouth. Roars out in rage when the man's beady eyes reveal the truth. He opens his own eyes wide. Grins so broadly that it seems as though he could rip that lying sack of shit's throat out with his own teeth and nothing more. His finger curls around the gun's trigger.

 

He doesn't offer the man a prayer.

 

The blood sprays warmth onto his skin. He grimaces when a shard of the man's skull lands on his cheek and slides down slickly. Chalks it up to a job hazard. Wipes the excess blood off his face with his sleeve. Cleans the barrel haphazardly on the man's pants. Heaves a sigh.

 

He rises to his feet soon after.

 

His footsteps get a little heavier with every step he takes toward the kitchen. He sidesteps the bodies expertly. Doesn't look twice at most of them. Hisses out an exasperated breath when he finds one still breathing shallowly and clawing at the doorpost in a futile attempt to leave death's dominion. He doesn't think of the shot he takes as mercy. Only necessity. Can't let anybody get the jump on him. He's just that side of paranoid now, just used to that side of the fight in his head that's always gunning for the next open shot and chance at the upper hand.

 

It's not his fault he's like this.

 

Frank Castle lays his gun down when he enters the room. He sets it on the dresser next to the door carefully. Doesn't relinquish the other two guns he carries to the room's open space, but keeps them strapped to his body. His hand trembles as he lets go of the dresser.

 

The girl disarms him, as he knew she would.

 

He doesn't think he can take another step. Doesn't think he's cut out to be in a world where they hurt little girls like this. Shit, she can't be more than eight years old. There's a faint smile that creases her lips in this dim light, but he knows better than to believe it's the real deal. Real smiles don't come with wide, staring eyes. Real smiles don't come with splayed-out limbs and more blood than white sheets can absorb.

 

His stomach rolls treacherously. For a moment, Frank Castle feels adrift in open water. Feels like the water's already up to his lips and taking one breath would only spill salt into his lungs where the scorching heat used to be. There's salt in his eyes, wet and uncomfortable, and he can't turn away.

 

He doesn't think he can take another step, but he does. He steps closer to the bed. Smooths down what's left of the torn and bloodied pink dress those monsters put her in. Bile catches in his throat when he feels residual warmth in her skin as he folds her limbs into a position that does not scream of abuse and heartbreak. It's like he is tucking her in for the night, and for a moment he sees Lisa.

 

Lisa, eyes unseeing, blood spilling forth from her body, broken and mangled, cut up into shards of the vibrance she used to be. His baby girl, she loved kaleidoscopes. Loved the colours, the bright patterns, the endless swirl of it all. She loved popsicles and dinosaurs. He'd always pretended he didn't know shit about what she was talking about. Had his girl explain the Big Bang to him like he doesn't know shit about the way the world began. Had taken her out stargazing, just the two of 'em, and she'd been so damn proud to find Cassiopeia without any help from daddy.

 

His throat constricts as his hands fold around the girl's thin frame. Cass, he thinks wildly at her, not knowing her name but god damn it all to hell she's just like Lisa and he thinks of the stars when he thinks of his baby girl, Cass, I got here too late.

 

He walks in death's dominion all the days of his life. Inhales its fight into his lungs and spills it back out in bursts of thunderclaps hitting home in bodies. Wonders what fucking good that does him when he can't persuade death to leave little girls alone. Wonders how many more will look like Lisa, hair spilling over his arms as he picks up their small body and feels the bones dislocate under his touch. Wonders how long he's got to stay alive for when everything always leads him right back to failure.

 

He's always too late to save them.

 

Frank Castle cradles the body of an eight-year-old to his chest and wishes he could forget.

 

*

 

He roars to life in the days that follow the midnight burial.

 

Her newspaper tracks his movements with the well-practiced ease that comes with having seen his kind of retribution up close and personal. He lets her trail in his bloodied footsteps. Lets her write about his reasons why. Doesn't stop to think if he's speaking to her from beyond the grave or if she's lying in the cold hard ground along with him. Thinks he might finally drive himself insane if he stops to think about all the reasons why he wanted her to stay. He's dead to her. Dead, dead, dead.

 

And she still sees him.

 

The thought of that doesn't hurt as much as he wants it to.

 

He buries her in a different space. Folds her into the parts of his brain that are compartmentalised into specific boxes. Does it so haphazardly that sometimes she spills back out and throws his guilt back in his face. He thinks he's a fucking monster. Thinks he's some different kind of monster from the ones he hunts down, sure, but a feral snarl tugs at his lips and shackles never last when he burns with the desert storm.

 

What was that? What was that? What's that thing the counselor used to say? Frank Castle never left the war?

 

He still thinks that's the biggest slice of bullshit he's ever heard.

 

Frank Castle is the war.

 

He's never been one to adhere to the idea that happiness is a warm gun. Scoffed at the first two idiots who told him that. Decked the third. Thinks if anyone ever says that to him again, he's gonna make sure they understand a real gun's heat from up close. Happiness ain't got anything to do with guns. He should know that, because he cradles his guns night after night and yet the light never floods the space he stands in anymore. Happiness is for the living. Not for him, not ever again.

 

He thinks peace, though, peace might have everything to do with guns. Peace is the neat click of a clip sliding into place. Peace is the reassuring grip in his hands and the curl of his finger on the trigger. Peace is the slow exhale before he takes the shot.

 

He's restless when he's not coiled around a weapon. Restless until he moves his hands just-so and his finger taps against the table once, twice, thrice in a rhythm he knows as well as the beat of his own heart. Restless until he roars his rage out in hails of bullets and makes a sound that's more animal than man.

 

He terrifies the living, and thinks this is good.

 

New York City ain't the same since the Devil left it. Sure, he knows they all think he's dead. That Red's gone and joined the ranks of sainthood or some shit like that. He doesn't presume to know better, but thinks the man's just too Catholic guilt-trip to up and die like some common man. Thinks there's about to be a resurrection.

 

Means he's gotta make this quick.

 

"For the last time, I ask," he rumbles at the crippled body that's still trying to crawl away from him, "who's the money?"

 

It doesn't strike him that the body's answered him until he finds the information he's looking for in the drawer the man's severed arm points at. Has half a mind to not look at it. Thinks it's a little too much like a rabbit-hole he can't see the end of.

 

"Alice had not a moment to think about stopping herself before she found herself falling down what seemed to be a very deep well," he murmurs, almost reverently, as his hands brush the pages upon pages of names and worse.

 

Frankie stands next to him now, already taller and wiser than his kid's got any right to be, and pipes up a "curiouser and curiouser!" in a pitch-perfect rendition of an increasingly bemused Alice in Wonderland. He closes his eyes when Junior's smile disappears and is replaced by the very serious frown that creases his brow and makes him sputter out a breath that's red with blood. Hunches in on himself when his son rocks back on his heels and lets out a gargled cry.

 

He opens his eyes to find Frankie gone and his fingers digging into his next crusade. Briefly wonders what to do next. If he can ever just take a moment to breathe in after one thing is fought and done for.

 

Flip a coin, dad! Always the magician, Junior, and always up for fooling his old man with a new trick. Sounds excited even in the rough tumble of his memories that mix the coins with the cards and the good-luck rattle of the dice Billy always used to play on the nights spent in camp. Pretty-face Billy always won, except when Frank challenged him to flip a coin. Penny or dime, doesn't matter, just flip it. Flip it!

 

It's only when the memory spits a "flip the damn coin, Frank" at him that he realises how much Junior always sounded like Maria.

 

*

 

He ain't got the right to be tired.

 

That fact doesn't stop him from briefly closing his eyes and wishing the world would stop screaming at him. Doesn't stop him from stumbling over his own two feet until he finally gives up and sinks down to his knees.

 

First snow's already red around him.

 

The only blessing is that most of it ain't his blood. Most of it is theirs. Thinks if Red ever comes back from the dead, the man might find this city changed at Frank's bruised and bloodied hands. He hasn't been to church in ages. Doesn't think he has to when he gets all the preachin' done at him from a man dressed as the Devil.

 

It's this thought that finally, finally makes him laugh. He starts at the sound of the chuckle that rises from deep inside his belly and tumbles from his lips in a croaked version of amusement. The halting sound is more foreign to his ears than any call to prayer that still echoes in his ears when it's quiet and the sand's filled up his lungs.

 

He's so damn tired.

 

The laughter gives way to a yawn. He sways on the spot even though he's already on his knees and down in the dirt that he still hopes is going to rise up and swallow him whole. Rubs his eyes in exhaustion. This is the kind of tired he can't cure with rivers of blackest coffee. He grimaces at the way his hands tremble.

 

He can't make his peace yet. Not tonight. Not when he's this close to shutting them down.

 

A deeper, other part of him bares its teeth at the thought of rest. He doesn't get to do that. He doesn't get to be weak like that, not anymore, not when it cost him all he had. He doesn't get to be that fucking weak.

 

He lets his thoughts run together in his head. On his better days, he's able to separate fiction from reality. He's able to make sense of the static in some parts of his brain. Able to work around the fact that he doesn't always know the right words or remember things in the right order. Sometimes, all he can do is try and stopper the gaps with the haze of near-exhaustion.

 

Tonight's not one of those times.

 

He knows it when the metallic twang of blood in the air gives way to calla lilies and that one brand of bubblegum Maria always bought family packs of. Knows it when the snow beneath his hands gives way to warmth. Knows it when time passes all funny before his eyes and it's almost daybreak while he began his slaughter in the dead of night. He's all but bawling his eyes out amid a pile of bodies and he's so fucking tired he can't see straight.

 

"One batch," he grunts, finally, when the taste of Maria's chapstick lingers on his lips a moment too long. Raises his eyes to the horizon. "Two batch." He gets to his feet. Sways a moment when he steps onto slick, red-toned ice. "Penny and – goddamn, goddamn – penny and.."

 

Dime! chants his memory, before his lips find the shape of the words.

 

He's too fucking tired for this.

 

*

 

The world hurts a little more today than it did yesterday.

 

Frank Castle cracks open one eye and groans pain into the cold air of winter. Feels the makeshift stitches he gave himself last night pull and chafe at his skin. They itch, which is good. One of them burns, which decidedly is not.

 

He's a goddamn walking bruise with exhaustion trapped in his skin and a desert where the light used to flood in.

 

He doesn't want to rise. The world hurts.

 

But then, then, there's her. There's Maria, and he thinks he's suffering some kind of goddamn hallucination when she curls around him in the tangle of limbs that is always her "welcome home, baby". Her hair tickles his nose. She smells like her favourite flowers and that vanilla cream he got her for her birthday that one time. Tears sting his eyes when his arms close around her mirage and she feels real for just a moment too long.

 

"Get up, soldier." He hears the smile in her voice. Wonders how someone as good as her wound up with him for a husband. He's just some kind of dead weight bringing down her ghost. It doesn't stop her from fixing him with a stern voice and repeating the same words she said to him every morning. "On your feet, baby, come on."

 

He never questions Maria. Her voice is trapped in his head where all his memories used to be before they scattered into his body. She's trapped within the walls he's built around the white noise that used to be full of her. Shit, though, when she's breaking through his walls and toppling his control like the domino game the kids used to love, when she's doing that, she still feels alive. She feels like she never went away.

 

Maybe he's the one who faded. Maybe he's nothing but the one who got home from war and then brought death in his wake. Maybe there's a universe in which she's still breathing, still living, still smiling warm love at a man who's never been to the desert in his life.

 

He prays Maria is real in every other world, because this one hasn't felt real since she left it.

 

"Come on, baby," she coaxes. Purrs the words into his ear until he lets out a shuddering breath and surrenders. "It's time."

 

"Time?"

 

He shoots upright when her smile turns just a little too vicious. White hot pain shoots through him seconds after, searing and scarring and worse, and he gasps out a hurt that's only ever skin-deep. Curses under his breath when he tastes sand on his tongue and the room around him shifts back into shadow.

 

"Time to go to war, baby," she says, and Frank Castle cries out in agony.

 

*

 

He kills himself every night.

 

All the demons in his dreams wear his face. He wakes with his heart thudding out of his chest and a scream dying on his lips. He wakes to the image of Maria getting shot in the head over and over and over again until she's nothing but red flesh where her smile used to be. He wakes to the sound of Frankie's keening cries halting, rasping, shuddering until they go real quiet and his lungs rattle out just one breath. He wakes to Lisa bleeding all over his arms and hands before a searing pain shoots through his skull and he's alone again.

 

He's living on borrowed time. He has to be. Men like him, they ain't ever long for this world. Ain't the kind to die in their beds at some ripe old age. Men like him don't get to rest like that.

 

Way he sees it, borrowed time means he's gotta think fast. Act fast. Take as many down with him before death decides that letting him live was one goddamn mistake too many. He has decided he'll quarrel with death, the devil and God himself if he must. He's going to start a fucking riot. Bring heaven crashing down on earth somehow.

 

Until then, he will put a gun to his head in his dreams. Will open his veins with well-chosen cuts that make him bleed out real slow. Will smash his own head into the floor, the walls, anything he can get his hands on. Night after night, this is reality. Night after night, he's the one who kills them. He's the one who puts the gun to his wife's head. He's the one tearing into his children as though he's some wolf who forgot he's supposed to be the fairytale kind. He's the one who kills them in different ways every single night and wakes out of breath and bleeding every damn morning.

 

Maria'd always said secrets kill a family. He'd nodded along with her as though he understood.

 

Frank Castle didn't know shit back then, but he sure as hell does now.

 

He has gathered enough secrets to topple small kingdoms with. Thinks he's going to stand on the ashes of this city and burn just that much brighter before dying out. He knows he's going to burn the whole world down before his own end comes as silent as the ghosts that haunt him. Feels the fire scorch his lungs as the tears freeze on his cheeks.

 

Just like a supernova, daddy, isn't that cool?

 

Oh yeah, Lise, and his breath catches in his lungs at the sound of her name ringing through his ears, supernovas are always the best part.

 

Frank Castle rises to his feet. Feels the desert storm coil around his fists as he huffs out a breath. A half-formed mantra tumbles off his tongue.

 

Si vis pacem..

 

Frank Castle smiles.

 

The war is all there is.