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First Principles

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Cecilee Spencer, back in another life when she’d been Gunnery Sergeant Spencer of the United States Marine Corps, had once sworn up and down to a brother Marine that there could not possibly be anything in the world more dangerous and more boring than patrol duty. You went out, you walked around and stared at a whole lot of nothing, and you waited to get shot. As it turned out, she’d be wrong about that.

Surveillance was even more boring, just as dangerous, and at the moment required wearing a pair of heels that she was pretty sure would have made better weapons than footwear.

The Pines of Rome, the bar was called, which was just about as firm a delusion of grandeur as she’d ever heard in her life. It was an overdressed bar full of underdressed girls who couldn’t possibly average the age of consent between them, and just as full of wiseguys who probably thought the sun rose and set out of their personal asshole. They were the sort of scum she would have been happy to ventilate in a hot second, except she was hunting bigger game today so the small-time shooters were just going to have to keep. The place would still be here in a couple of weeks. She could blow it to hell then.

Connie Sparrow, as far as anybody in the room knew, was a small-timer with a taste for young girls and an excess of destructive hardware she didn’t know the first thing about using but was happy to sell you. She’d picked up a reference from Lenny Blake a few months back, seemed all right enough, and if Lenny had had the bad luck to step in front of a subway train a few weeks ago... well, that sort of thing happened and you didn’t ask. Sparrow didn’t ask much, either - she just had a drink, dangled the foulest smelling cigarettes in the world from her fingers, and watched the girls.

Funny how nobody expected your ears to be open when you made a show of staring at a barely-dressed ass. “Connie” was a deep-plant role, the kind of thing Frank had taught her before they parted ways - the kind of thing those Company assholes she’d kicked over little brown men in caves for had probably learned before they learned to walk. Lie, smile, act like you belong. Make friends, if you could call them that, and meet their friends. Make a sale, now and then, and note the name down in the little black book in your head to make sure to clean up in a few days. Nobody ever seemed to notice that everyone anyone actually saw buy from Connie turned up with a bullet in their brain within the month.

Some nights after she played Connie, Lee needed three showers and two stiff bourbons to feel clean again. That was all right, though. That was good. Clean wasn’t part of the mission, and being able to tell the difference meant she wasn’t Frank yet.

She had to talk herself out of another bourbon after that thought. She made herself watch the girls and fake a hungry smile, instead.

“Can I top you off?”  The waitress leaned provocatively over the edge of Lee’s table, the top half of the buttons of her blouse undone, showing a generous amount of cleavage barely restrained by a lacy bra.  Without waiting for an answer, she placed another bottle of bourbon on the table, letting it be joined with a saucy wink.

“Sure, sweetheart. Kind of you.” The accent had been the hardest thing to shake - to learn how to work her mouth and her throat like an instrument, until she could sound Kitchen Irish or Bronx Blue or western dude at the drop of a hat. Her native drawl drew attention, and that could be useful, but not on a night like tonight. Connie had that Manhattan snap to her voice, though she was softening it for the moment with a husky sort of politeness about a step down from running a hand up the girl’s skirt. “You look good tonight, sweetheart. You busy?”

“Another hour, maybe two, then I’ll be free.”  The waitress gave another wink.  “If you’ve got any ideas for things to keep me occupied.”

“We’ll see, sweetheart.” Connie patted her purse with mock regret, fingers resting on the visible cell phone. “You know how it is with business, but if I’m still here and you’ve got the time...” Definitely need to clear out before then. Not that the girl wasn’t pretty - she was - but that wasn’t what she was here for. She was here to work.

She felt almost guilty watching the view as the girl went, and it took her a minute to place the why. Death do us part or not, when she bothered to think about it she still considered herself a married woman. Funny thing to feel guilty about, though. You’d think the bodies she was going to make before the end of the night would rate higher than a little in-character ogling. Didn’t work that way, though. Go figure.

Back on mission, Spencer .

It was about ten minutes later that the trouble started, and when it did it was subtle - perhaps not subtle in most places, but subtle here.  An indignant cry from one of the girls, not enough to draw the eyes here - if, every time a girl made a sound like that in the Pines of Rome, one took notice, one would not have time to notice anything but indignant girls reacting to a hand arrive somewhere they weren’t quite ready for.  Then another sound, the same pitch.

Then the cry.

Then the slap.

A shudder went up Lee’s back, her eyes suddenly narrow behind the contacts that turned them vividly green, and she ran a fingertip into her purse to be sure it was open as she feigned a long sip of bourbon and turned her head. There was trouble and there was trouble, and if a girl in a place like this had only taken a slap or planted one on some bottom-rung loser then she could count herself lucky if it ended there. If.

Lee didn’t think anyone was going to get that lucky tonight.

The sounds came from a corner of the club, and all Lee could see for the first moment was a group of men, gathered around a table.  Then she caught a lock of blonde hair - hair that snapped to the side at the sound of another slap, loud enough to stop most of the talking in the bar.  Another slap, this one with the damp sound of flesh striking bloody flesh, and a scream of pain.

Fuck. Trouble.

She grabbed the bottle and her glass and made a show of it, tottering unsteadily in her heels - that was less hard than it looked, the damn things - as she moved through the sudden silence toward that cluster of men. It took her maybe thirty seconds and two more slaps to do it, and by the time she got there she had a Plan A to go with her Plan B - shoot everything that moved.

“Hey.” Connie Sparrow had a good set of lungs on her, and when the first quiet word didn’t get a reaction she put them to use. “I said ‘hey,’ fuckheads!”

“What is it, Connie?  Here to join in on our fun?”  One of the men - a heavyset man whose girth did little to hide the dense muscle beneath - gave a grin with as many false teeth in it as natural, standing aside to let Lee see what was happening.  One of the girls - the young ones who came in to turn expensive tricks - was sprawled backward against the table, sobbing, her blouse torn, blood flowing freely from a cut on her upper cheek.  Two men - one of whom had his pants unzipped - were standing over her, and the man with the unzipped pants delivered another slap that created another, shallower cut on her chin.

“Will you fuckin’ stop that, Lou?” Lee put a drunken indignation into Connie’s voice that went oddly with the leer on her face. “You’re messin’ up her pretty face. Ought to be a crime, letting a face like that go to waste.”

“Aw, bitch ain’t got a use for her face.  Just trying to slap some teeth out of her.  Doesn’t know how to keep her mouth closed when it out to be, and worse doesn’t know how to keep it OPEN when it ought to be.”  Lou looked up with a grimace before delivering another slap.

“I got a use for her face! You think I want to take that girl upstairs later, once you done messing her up?” Connie gave him a drunken glare and elbowed her way forward, ignoring his half-bare prick like it wasn’t waving around. “Look, you want a girl who knows what to do with her mouth, they got lots of that. Faces that pretty? Not nearly enough. ‘Specially blond. You know I like a blond, Lou. Why you gotta mess her up like that and spoil my fun, huh?”

“Take ‘er away before I change my mind.”  Lou grunted.  “And somebody get me a beer!”

“Aw, you’re a sport, Lou. Here - I’ll do you better.” Connie slapped the bottle into his hand and gave him a drunken leer. “That’s a good bourbon - do more for you than this girl ever would. You have a nice night, now. Come on, girl - we get some ice on that face, you might make my night yet.” She wrapped a surprisingly strong hand under the girl’s shoulders and hoisted her up, making a show of feeling her up in the process, then set about dragging her upstairs as demonstratively as possible.

The girl was silent by the time they were upstairs, the pain and terror having given way to shock.  Her slight form trembled, her eyes were wide and cloudy, and what few sounds she made were incoherent whimpers.

“Shhhh.” Lee settled her onto the bed, filled a latex glove with ice from the bar and cold water, then pressed it to the girl’s cheeks carefully while she dug the right sort of long, narrow bandages from her purse and taped them into place. “Quiet, now. Quiet. It’s all right, baby. It’s all right. Just breathe for me, okay? Breathe for me.”

The girl shook on the bed, her eyes falling closed, her breath ragged.  “Didn’t... mean to...”

“That’s all right, baby. You don’t worry about a thing, understand? You just relax now. You’re gonna be just fine.” Lee found herself stroking the soft gold of the girl’s hair, voice as much cajoling as it was soothing. “You just relax.”

“Was tryin’ to be good...”  A bit of Texas snuck into the girl’s voice as it cracked.  “Tryin’...”

“You did just fine, baby. Just fine.” In spite of herself and in spite of training, Lee broke character enough to put her arm around the girl and hold her reassuringly. “He was just bein’ stupid, mean and drunk, that’s all. You did good.”

“Ya think so?”  The girl leaned against Lee lightly, her shaking starting to slow.

“I know so. You didn’t beg or nothing. That took guts.” Lee kissed her forehead, still working at easing the bruises. “You oughta hold your head up, be proud of that. What’s your name, brave girl?”

“Jessica.  They call me Candy, though.”  Lee was almost certain that, if her nickname were ever written out, it would end in an i rather than a y.

“Well, Jessica, you did real good. Don’t let anybody tell you different, understand?”

“‘Kay, miss.”  Jessica looked up at her.  “Were you lookin’ for...?”  She let the question hang.

“Figure I oughta let you stop bleeding before I answer that question, don’t you?” Lee cracked a smile that was only barely in character. “Where you from, Jessica?”

“They say to tell people I’m from somewhere big... LA, San Francisco, Chicago, DC.  But I’m from Andrews, Texas.  Bum-fuck nowhere.”  Jessica gave a small, weak smile.  “Got out fast as I could.”

“You miss it?”

“Think I more miss not bein’ here.”  Jessica laughed quietly, a painful sound.  “City’s lovely, but a girl like me don’t exactly get to enjoy it.”

“Ain’t that the truth.” Lee studied her, eyes searching. “You clean? Not bugs - I know they wouldn’t have you here. The other thing.”

“Yeah.  Tried a few things ‘bout six months ago, but didn’t like ‘em.  Pretty sure that makes me strange.”

“Makes you smart.” She’s still got a chance, Spencer, so what are you going to do? Leave her here to rot?  She couldn’t do that - knew she couldn’t. Fuck the risk. I didn’t start doing this to be safe. “You good at keeping secrets?”

“‘Part from the first girl I met after comin’ here, you’re the first who knows I’m not from Chicago.”

“Good girl.” Lee reached into her purse, ran her fingers along the side, and came out with the gold butterfly clip holding the thick stack of cash. “Here’s the deal. You take this and catch the first bus out of here to somewhere decent, or you say fuck off and stay here. Either way, you never tell a soul about this - tell ‘em I got a good ride out of you, and that’s all. You understand?”

“Ah gotcha.”  The girl took the cash, pocketing it quickly.  “I don’t see kindness often.  Thankya.”

“I don’t see tough, smart and brave much, neither.” Lee flicked the girl a smile that was, at last, fully her own. It made her eyes at once very warm and very hard. “You take care of yourself and find somethin’ honest, and we’re square. I see you back to the same old tricks... we’re gonna have words.”

“I’ll do my best.”  The expression on the girl’s face was something that couldn’t be faked - hope.

For the first time in months, Lee breathed a laugh that sounded human again. “Don’t I know it. Good luck, Jessica from Andrews. Keep your head down and your chin up, you’ll do just fine.”

Lou Pagnelli, as it turned out, had done pretty well on the bourbon. Well enough that he missed the little plastic ring of the tracer under the collar, anyway. He was half-way up the block on Twenty-Fifth when a woman’s voice stopped him - sweet southern drawl, but with an edge of iron. “Turn around, Lou. Nice and slow.”

He did like she told him, which was good. She wanted to see his eyes, after all - didn’t want to rush it. She’d taken the time to change, get herself dressed for the occasion, and he didn’t disappoint. His eyes started on her face, dropped to her chest - what was on it, at any rate - and he went white as a sheet. “You... you ain’t him.”

“No.” Lee smiled, and the silenced .22 was up and level with his eye before he could blink. “All the same, Lou, you should have kept it in your pants. You might have made it through the month.”

He went for his gun, of course. Stupid, but that was reflex for you. She shot him twice in the eye, and the sound he made hitting the ground was much louder than either cough of the pistol. “Hope they stock beer in hell, Lou,” she said off-hand. “I bet you’ll be real thirsty down there.”

When she turned and faded out of the glow of the streetlamp, the ivory skull on her chest was the last thing to vanish - Cheshire-like - into the night.

Chapter Text

Rembrandt Security Services was, on the whole, a pretty tough nut to crack. Buried out in the deep hills of upstate New York on a facility whose grounds stretched the better part of ten square miles and were about as liberally seeded with high-tech sensors and man-traps as any military installation, its headquarters and chief training ground boasted an on-site security team about the size of an infantry battalion and equipped to the nines with the best tech available on the military market. Its roster included ex-Airborne, ex-Marines and ex-Deltas in droves, and every man on the headquarters security assignment had ‘earned his bones,’ as the saying still went. It was, in other words, the kind of place that any sane person would have thought twice about walking into alone.

Cecilee Spencer was pretty sure by now that “sane” was something that applied to other people.

The biggest trick had been the biometrics - the sensors that marked height, weight, facial profile and build, correlated it with the electronic ID in your pocket and told the computer if you were who you said you were. Fancy stuff, and it should have made the whole place infiltration-proof. It might have done, too, if they’d had a smaller staff. An infantry compliment of eight hundred with frequent rotations gave her plenty to work through, and it only took her a week of surveillance to find a soldier who could have passed for her long-lost sister in the right light. Then it had just been a matter of introducing Veronica Hughes to the rough end of a tactical flashlight, helping herself to the woman’s gear, then hopping a later ride back up to the base and hoping she didn’t meet anyone who knew Veronica well on the way.

So far, her luck was still good.

She’d ducked the barracks for the main building of the compound at around three in the morning, passing off the desk clerk with a story about a quick ‘meeting’ with a senior officer up in one of the conference rooms and a few well-crumbled twenties tucked into her papers. It was a small bribe and a big risk, but the clerk took her half-shy, half-hungry smile at face value and indulged the Lieutenant’s little fit of location envy as long as she promised to be out of the building before the boss turned up in the morning. She’d done exactly that, then offered to grab him a coffee from the machine. He’d said yes, which was a mistake - the soporific in the coffee would knock him out long before dawn, and his relief would probably put it down to anything but a well-placed drug.

Despite popular wisdom, she’d taken the elevator, not the stairs - better to let them see what they expected, after all - and let herself off well before the secured floors at the top. Then had come the hard work - the vents, the connected rooms, the floors and ceilings she’d had to cut through. In the end, she’d only had to use the silenced .22 jammed into her shoulder bag once. Shame about that, but he’d been a big man with hard hands and the look of someone who’d enjoyed life in the sticks just a little too much. She wasn’t going to waste any sympathy on him. Not tonight, anyway.

She picked the conference room next to Rembrandt's office, looped the security back on itself with a preloaded counter-surveillance package, then settled in to wait.

He didn’t disappoint her. She’d rigged the micro-camera in the hall before she sat down, and by the time his showed his face it was barely five am in the morning. The man had a rep as a hard worker, relentless hours, and apparently it hadn’t been exaggerated. His security detail was nothing special, three military thugs - she’d served long enough to know the type - who probably would shoot first, shoot second, and maybe bother with questions in some other life. It was the blond man in the dark suit that caught her eye - tall, big, with a walk that said he knew what he was about. Subordinate, maybe? Field commander? Hard to know for sure, but he was a potential problem. Better not to give him too much time to react.

Lee fished in her bag for the flashbang and the P90, went over the layout one more time in her head, then tugged the shirt of the unfamiliar uniform open and ran a finger down the t-shirt underneath for luck. Wherever you are, Frank, I hope you’re having a better day than me.

She threw herself out the door with the grenade already primed, shot the first two guards in the head from the floor, then hit the door before the emergency locks could seal it and jammed it open with one of the falling bodies. The flashbang went in next, and she followed it a few seconds later - low and fast, just like back in the provinces. The last guard had his gun out but down, still blinking the sparks from his eyes, and hers was already up and tracking - tough cookies for him. Rembrandt was still behind the desk, clawing for his gun, but she had seconds to burn there. It was the blond she was looking for, sweeping the room with the muzzle of the P90 as fast as her head would turn, and she had just about enough time to register that he wasn’t anywhere near Rembrandt’s desk anymore before something hit her like a freight train going ninety.

By the time her eyes cleared of the stars induced by her head slamming against a wall with just short of enough force to cause a concussion, the blond was standing over her, a foot on her chest, and her gun was on the other side of the room.

Then he spoke, and it was a voice she’d heard dozens of times on television.

“Just what do you think you’re doing?”

She looked up at him, eyes blue and sharp and full of rage, and she spoke in a voice that could have cut tank armor. “Sorting the fucker who thinks American boys going out to die is a good excuse to ship pure white shit back from Asia and make himself the fucking middle-man for the whole damn mob. Sir.” She didn’t move - not yet. If he was who she thought he was, she’d only get one shot. If that. Wait for it, Spencer, and make it good. Rembrandt was still behind his desk, still coming up with the gun. Come on, you asshole, do something stupid and make my day.

The blonde gave one almost-nonchalant gesture, releasing from his left hand a heavy shape that it took Lee a moment to realize was a gun - a gun that hit Rembrandt between the eyes, knocking him sprawling to the floor. “Which is exactly what I was working on as well... though I was planning on sending him through the courts, and making certain that it got onto the news.”

“Due respect, sir, I’d rather put a .45 in his skull.” Lee gave him a tight, narrow smile that was all teeth. “Figure he’s got that coming, and not cable TV in some minimum security Hilton somewhere.”

“Not your decision to make.” Steve Rogers moved his foot from Lee’s chest. “Walk away.”

She rolled to her feet, studying his face, and took three long steps to the right - hands spread at her sides, visibly empty. “You’re taller than you look on the news, Captain Rogers.”

“I hear that a lot. I’d also heard that Frank had a successor... you’re her?”

“Figure it counts as a successor if you’re still in the business?” Lee was still smiling, and it would have given a shark nightmares. “I’m the Punisher, yeah, if that’s what you're asking.”

“That’s what I’m asking.” Steve sighed. “I’d worried he’d find someone. Almost as much as I worried he wouldn’t.”

“He always had a soft-spot for you, Captain. Figure it was a man-idol bonding thing, from back in the day.” She was almost against the windows now, her hands still spread and her eyes still on his face. “You really break his arm?”

“Twice, I think, though he’s never admitted to the second.” Steve’s eyes flicked down to Lee’s hands.

“Tough old bastard. He wouldn’t. He’d apologize for this, too. I won’t. Stay out of my way, Captain, or we’ll both regret it.” She kicked her foot back against the frame of the window hard enough to crack it, hands still spread, and the room suddenly shrieked with a pitch high and sharp enough that the security glass behind her - completely bullet-proof, or damn near so - shattered like a fine crystal plate on hard stone. Her left hand was already coming up, slapping against the thick steel pillar behind her, and as she kicked off the edge of the window she brought her right out from behind her back with a pistol she had sighted and in both hands before she properly started to fall. Before she dropped out of sight, she’d put five shots in the air - head and chest, sure as dawn, and be damned to needing a base of fire or even a stable angle.

Bullets ricocheted in every direction off bulletproof cloth, one passing just under Lee’s ear as she dropped. Her last sight of the inside of the office showed Steve Rogers standing at the place where the window had been, watching her fall with a mild, disapproving frown and bullet holes in his suit that revealed traces of the blue of his uniform. Then there was no time for that, because she had to shed her jacket and kick free of the bungee line before she lost too much height for the collapsed glider strapped to her back to do her any good. By the time the glass hit the pavement, twenty stories down, she was a wide-winged speck vanishing over the hills.

Six weeks later, outside his successful bail hearing, someone shot John Rembrandt through the head with a .308 Winchester Magnum from at least 800 meters away. It made the papers right next to the expose on his company’s heroin smuggling. Two days after that, Avengers Tower got a note for Steve Rogers.

Nice to meet you. Next time, I won’t go so easy. Happy hunting, Captain.

It wasn’t signed, but there was a watermark. A skull, as it turned out.

Chapter Text

The sun was bright and sweet, the kind of breeze every kid would beg for ruffling the leaves from the trees, and Lee tugged her hair out of its up-twist and trotted down toward the bridge with a smile on her face. David liked her hair down, inconvenient as it was, and she planned to spoil him today. It was their anniversary, after all - two years since she’d gotten married, a bit more than that since she’d left the Corps. That still gnawed at her, sometimes, but hell if walking in the park with her husband didn’t beat bumming around the back of bumfuck nowhere shooting people who had it coming. Part of her missed the action, twitched every time she heard a car backfire or someone shoved up against her on the subway, but that was all right. She’d get over it, and she had David to hold on to. He never asked what the nightmares were about and he never complained when she had to roll out of bed for coffee at three in the morning and just sit staring out at the night for a while.

Her David. She caught a glimpse of him on the bridge: he was just a few feet away, his dark hair framing the fine lines of his face, and she opened her mouth to call out to him.

The world dissolved in the crack of gunfire, and she came awake screaming a second before the familiar hot spray of his blood splashed across her face and the searing shock of the rounds tearing into her chest threw her away from him.

Cecilee Spencer sat in the dark, fingers laced in her sheets and her chest burning for air, and fought the crushing wave of loss that tried to bury her in tears. Three years. Jesus, it’s been three years, and I can still feel....

She pushed the thought away and rolled out of bed, scrubbing her face, and finally registered that her phone was ringing. Must have been ringing a while. Must have been what shook her out of the nightmare. Without thinking about it, she reached over and grabbed it out of its cradle. “Yeah, what the fuck do you want?”

“I know it’s been a while, Cecilee, but that’s no reason to be quite this upset with me...”  A familiar voice came through the line.  “It’s Lilian.”

“Jesus.” I scrub my face and shake my head, trying to get some blood into my brain, and some back piece of my head reminds me that I’m my own bed and not one of my safehouses. “Lilian Stanfield? John’s sister? What time is it where you are, anyway?”

“No idea... I’m jet lagged.  What’s your clock say?”  Lilian kept her voice light, trying to keep the concern out of it.

“0700.” I manage not to snarl it, and dredge up a laugh instead. “Damn, Lilian, I’m sorry. I had a late night and my sleep cycle’s shot all to hell. I don’t mean to be a rude bitch. What’s up?”

“I’m in town... heard you were in New York, and it looks like I managed to dig your number up.  John had me promise to check in on you when I could, so... here I am.”

“Fuck. You’re outside, aren’t you?” This time the laugh was a little more natural, helpless with the insanity of the situation. My dead buddy’s sister, who just happens to work for the fucking FBI, is standing outside my building and I’m half-dead ‘cause I spent last night shooting a whole barrel full of goons. My life is nuts.

“Up the street, actually... figured I’d give you a few minutes to get decent, at least.  I’ll be there in... oh, five?”  Lilian laughed softly.  “I expect you can be dressed by then.”

And I thought I was done with snap inspections when the Corps threw me out.... “Yeah, I can do that. I might even manage a shower. Call when you get here - I’ll ring you in.” I’m already on my feet, thanking Jesus, Mary and God Almighty that I cleaned and racked my gear before I came back here for some sleep. Sure, I’ve got the box under the floorboards, but fuck if I need to be doing that five minutes before Lilian shows up. I yank the drawer open and shove the Glock 20 on my beside table into it as quietly as I can. “It’s good to hear your voice, Lil. I’ll see you in five."

“All right.  I’ll be there.”  And, sure enough, five minutes later, the phone was ringing again.

My hair’s still soaking wet and I’ve barely managed a cami and jeans, but I did manage to give the condo a quick once-over to make sure I didn’t have anything horribly incriminating sticking out where she’s likely to see it. Now, as long as she doesn’t start pulling open drawers and noticing how many guns I have shoved in various hidey-holes around here.... I pick up the phone, hit the entry code, then hang up and go to the kitchen to put the coffee on. Sure, it’s hospitality, but fuck if I don’t need it as bad as I can remember in a while. Lil Stanfield. Fuck me, but how long has it been?

Since the funeral. It’s been since the funeral, and I know it. Jesus.

The door to the apartment opened a minute later, and Lil leaned against the frame and waved.  It was obvious why her brother had chosen that nickname for her - her frame was small, lean and athletic.  She had short-cropped black hair and bright blue eyes that drank in the world from behind a pair of plastic-framed glasses.  She wore a leather jacket with a button-down shirt and black slacks beneath, and a pair of lace-up boots that added a few much-needed inches to her stature.  “You know... I’ll need to get your mobile number, if you have one.”

“Yeah... sure. It’s a work line, mainly, so I don’t usually give it out.” I turn and lean against the kitchen door, crooking half a smile at her. Same old Lil. “Guess I can make an exception for you. You want some coffee? Navy black - it’ll do you good.”

“Coffee sounds about perfect... likely going to be running on it most of today.”  Lily made her way into the kitchen, reaching up to retrieve a mug from one of the cabinets.  “Most of the month... I’m in town for a while, and have no idea what hours I’ll have available for sleep.”

“Ain’t that the story of our lives?” I pour her her cup, do the same for myself, then carry mine past the dining room and into the living room in the hope she’ll maybe follow me and not go rooting around until she finds the sawed-off under the sink. “Must be a pretty big deal for the Bureau to have you out here that long, but I’m guessing you can’t talk about it?”

“A mess is what they’ve got me out here this long for.  I was supposed to be going to DC for a conference and a few meetings with some higher-ups, but somehow got shanghaied into mob business.”  Lil took a long drink of her coffee.  “Nasty mob business.  Then my only lead was taken out...”

“Little unfriendly competition, or what?” I try not to sound too interested, even if I am. Settling into the couch and sipping my coffee helps - there’s a nice view of the city out my window, but I don’t dare look at it. That was always David’s favorite part of this place... the reason we bought it, really, even though the price tag made me cringe. It was mostly his money, and he loved it so much I couldn’t tell him no.

F ocus, Spencer.

Lil takes a seat next to me, taking a gulp of her coffee before speaking.  “Worse... one of the ‘good guys’ took him out.”  She sighed.  “Officially, I have no idea who did it.”

“Unofficially?” I brush my hand over hers, and truth be told I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s just how worn she sounds, or maybe it’s that I’m hoping the contact will draw an answer out of her. Fuck, maybe both. Sometimes the way I look at the world these days makes me want to be sick.

Lil’s hand turns over me, wrapping slowly around my fingers.  “The worst of the good... maybe the best of the bad.  Sure as hell isn’t Spider-Man.”

“So when you say ‘took him out’...” I draw the words out for a second, as though I’m just getting it, and don’t think about the way her hand feels in mine. “That Castle guy?”

“No... he’s not doing that work much any more, and the MO’s not quite right.  More surgical, less... needlessly violent.  It’s his successor.”  Lil swallows the rest of her coffee.  “I’m almost certain of that.”

“I didn’t know he had one. Damn. It screw up your investigation bad?” I keep hold of her hand, finish my own cup, and nod to hers. “You want some more?”

“As much as you can give me.”  Lil released my hand and passes over the mug.  “Dead man was a creep and a scumbag, but he was also ready to talk, and I needed what he had to say.  Still do need it.”

I take the time the trip to the kitchen and back buys me to cycle through everyone I’ve shot in the last few weeks she could be talking about. It makes for a pretty long list. If it’s pressing, if they dragged her down here for it.... I make myself take a breath and focus on the moment. Dead is dead, and none of the bastards I’ve put bullets in are coming back, so we’ve gotta deal with what is. “He was onto something important? Busting one of syndicates, or smuggling or something?”

“That’s what I can’t talk about.  I just have to find someone else who can get me the information he had fast, or some bad things are going to happen.”

“You’re the best, Lil. John always thought so. You’ll figure it out.” I hug her, and surprise myself by meaning it.

She hugs me tightly in return.  “I hope so.  I just hope I figure out a way to crack this without having to go toe-to-toe with the Punisher...”

“You will.” I’ll make sure you do. She’s warm against me, and my arms tighten around her instinctively, protectively. I always liked Lil - she’s always been tough, took no shit, knew what she was about. Nothing’s going to happen to her while she’s here - I decide that right there in my living room, while her dark hair’s running through my fingers. “When was the last time you got some sleep and a decent meal?”

“My last decent meal was in San Francisco, and my last six hours of sleep were in Phoenix.”  Lil smiles a bit.  “I was promised both in DC, but I haven’t set foot in that city yet.”

“Well, I figure the way you’re downing your coffee you have to work today, but how about I take you out to dinner tonight and we try to fix that first problem?” I smile down at her, squeezing her softly. “The guest room here hasn’t been used for a while, but I could clean it out for you if wanted it for the night. Guess you probably have a hotel by now, though?” It’s a stupid offer, I know that the moment I make it, but it just comes out. Maybe because that’s what the Lee she used to know would have said, and I’m just mimicking the part. I don’t know.

“I hate hotels, and would love to stay here instead, for as long as you’ll have me.”  Lil gives an almost-shy smile.  “I imagine I’d start to smell before my job’s done.”

Fuck. I squeeze her again, making myself think it through. It’s a good place, secure... she’ll be safe here, and I can keep an eye on her. Nothing too incriminating, except the guns, and I can work around that. “I’m not here all the time - work keeps me on the go pretty hard, all kinds of hours, so you’d be coming home to an empty house most nights. If you don’t mind that, though, sure. You can stay as long as you’re here.” Because now that I’ve said it, I’m not smart enough to talk my way out of it.

“I... thanks.  I mean it.”  Lil tilts her head back to smile up at me.  “That’ll make this a lot easier.”

“I’ll get you a key, and you can grab it at dinner. All right?” Damned if I don’t smile back like she’s my long lost sister. Why the hell is she turning my brains into fresh scramble?

Because you’re lonely, Lee. You’ve been lonely for three years, and she makes you feel something other than lonely.

I shove the though away, hard, because that’s a dangerous idea and because I don’t want to believe it. I’m not lonely - I have my work and I have David, and that’s enough. It has to be.

“All right.  I... I’d better get down to the station, lay down the law there.  I’ll sleep after I’ve put the fear of me into the locals.”  Lil winks.

“They’ll fall into line if they know what’s good for them.” I crook a little grin at her and kiss her on the forehead, because I can’t think what else to do. “I’ll see you at Winchester and 5th around 1700?”

“Sure... I’ll call if I’ll be late.”  Lil slowly disentangles herself from the hug.

“Here’s my number.” I grab her phone and fiddle with it a minute, then hand it back. “I’m under ‘Lee.’”

“Thanks.”  Lil offers a small, private smile before heading out the door. I stand there a moment, feeling like an idiot and a fool and a thousand other things. Smiling, though, in spite of it - God knows why. Back on mission, Spencer, I remind myself firmly. Then I get back to work.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Lee walked out of Cartwright’s with her long wool coat tugged up tight against the cold. She’d picked one of her suits for tonight - one she hadn’t worn in a long time, now that she thought about it. It still fit. If anything, actually, it was a little loose. That suited her - it helped the Glock against her ribs sit more naturally and therefore invisibly under the suit jacket. She dragged in a breath of the New York air, fighting down a rush of restlessness at the taste of the night, and threw a smile at Lilian instead. The suit and the short blond haircut made her look butch as hell. “Told you they did a pretty mean steak here, didn’t I?”

“Worth the trip by itself.”  Lil rubbed her belly with a wide grin.  “Though I think I about doubled my weight...”

“Wouldn’t doubt it, skinny little thing that you are.” Lee smirked down at her, letting the natural length of her stride eat up the pavement under their feet. “How’ve you been? Really?”

“Exhausted.  I’ve been working the same case in four different states for the last year, and every time I get close to a break in it someone I need to have alive shows up dead.”  Lil reached for Lee’s arm.  “I’ll get through it - this isn’t the worst my job’s gotten - but it’s taking a lot out of me.”

Maybe it was just old Marine Corps chivalry, but Lee offered her arm and settled Lil in at her side like it was the most natural thing in the world. “When was the last time you were home?”

“August?  Maybe July.”  Lil leaned in lightly against Lee.  “Too long ago... I imagine the cobwebs have claimed the television.”

“Good thing you don’t keep fish.” Lee’s voice was soft, almost teasing, though there was a roughness to it. “They wouldn’t make it.”

“I’ve never been good with animals, anyway.  Did my brother ever tell you the story about the puppy?”

“No, but I have a feeling it doesn’t end well.”

“Poor Mr. Bojangles... he survived, but he would never look at a kitchen sink the same way again.”  Lilian shook her head.

“You named your dog Mister Bojangles? You must have a cruel streak I didn’t know about.”

“He came with that name!  That part wasn’t my fault!  The rest... well, sort of was... but not the name!”  Lil glared up at Lee.

Lee’s grin could have done a snake proud. “You poor dear. I don’t know how I’ll ever forgive myself for blaming you unjustly.”

“Quiet, you.”  Lil giggled softly.  “You have me laughing.  I haven’t had a real reason to laugh in months.”

Me, either. “Well, I couldn't have you walking around moping. John would never forgive me.”

“What about you?”  Lil turned to face Lee, looking up at her seriously.  “I tried to call when I heard about David, but you weren’t answering your phone... not that I can blame you.”

“I....” Lee trailed off, her face suddenly empty of emotion - as if everything in her had fallen away into some bottomless pit that it took her long moments to claw her way back out of. When life came back into her face, it was a smile so bleak it could have broken a stone’s heart. “I get by.”

Lil stepped in front of Lee, turned to face her fully, and hugged her tightly.  “Getting by isn’t enough.  God, I should have come sooner...”

Lee pushed back a little, voice tight. “It’s what I’ve got, Lil. Having someone here to hover wouldn’t change that he’s gone.”

“Maybe a little less lonely would have helped, though.”  Lil’s arms tightened.

I don’t need to be less lonely. I have work to do - necessary work. That’s enough for a life, or what’s left of it . She didn’t say any of that, though - not out loud. She just sighed, letting the smaller woman hold her, and tried to find something a normal human being might say. “You’re still all heart, Lil.”

“Nah... I just get to get all my mean out on other people.”  Finally, Lil let the hug loosen.  “And I care.”

“I know.”  Lee squeezed her shoulder, relaxing the way she’d been holding on to Lil so the smaller girl didn’t wind up hugging the Glock. “It hasn’t been all bad. I made a pretty good friend not too long after David... well, after. Tough old Marine bastard. He kicked my ass until I got up off the floor and stopped trying to drink myself to death. Got me back to work.” It's more than I should tell her and less than I want to, but it’ll have to do either way.

“You keep talking about your work... what is it you’re doing?”  Lil rested her hand on Lee’s arm again, forcing her tone to a more conversational pitch.

“Consulting stuff, mostly. Security. I go tell people how impressively locked up their offices are, mostly.” Her smile was faint, a little wry, and she breathed a silent sigh of thanks to Frank for his foresight in explaining how to launder money through a legitimate front. It’d turned out to be easier to give herself a job than she’d thought. “I travel some, go to conferences, set up alarm systems, get called in to hold people’s hands when they have a problem. It’s not always what I’d like to be doing, but it pays all right and it keeps me busy, which is as good as I can hope for.”

“It sounds like decent work.  At least you get to help keep people safe... even if it’s largely from their own stupid.”  Lil offered a small smile.  “And it probably pays better than government work.”

“Oh, it pays all right. Enough to let me take you out to eat.” Lee squeezed her hand over Lil’s, starting them walking again. “Only thing that’s rough about it is the hours - I never know where I’ll be from one day to the next. Bet you know what that’s like, though, and it’s not like I didn’t learn how to live that way with the Corps.”

“Yeah, that can be rough.  My bosses distributed some literature a few months ago about the importance of maintaining a steady sleep schedule... pretty sure it was their idea of a joke.”

“Oh, no, they mean every word. Bosses always do. They just figure you can cram everything else in around that mythical eight hours if you just squint hard enough.” Lee laughed softly, surprising herself with how real and warm it was. “Damn, I’m not sure I’ve talked this much to anyone in one day in.... well, in a while.”

“It’s good to hear your voice... real good.”  Lil gave a small smile.  “So you can keep talking.”

So she did. About the city, about memories, about everything and nothing until they came through the door of the apartment building and tucked into the elevator. She leaned up against the wall, looking down at Lillian, and crooked a little grin. “So, how did things work out with that guy John kept trying to set you up with, anyway?”

“We dated for a few months... never did click.  He was looking for a commitment and a white picket fence and kids and a girl who looked just like me but didn’t go get shot at on a monthly basis.”  Lil shrugged.  “No big loss.”

“Fair enough.” Lee stood there a moment, not speaking, and when the door to the elevator opened she unlocked her door and let Lillian in without any further comment. “Guest room’s the second door on the left. Figure you can get settled on your own?”

“Yeah.”  Lil offered Lee a small smile.  “I’ve never really had a relationship with a guy go well.  I mean, they’re fun for a bit, but... anyway, thanks for letting me stay.”

“Sure, it’s fine.” Lee stopped in the hallway, hand resting on the wall, and she didn’t turn to look at Lil when she spoke. “You know, I think you’re the second person who’s been in here since we died?”

We?  God, she’s worse than I thought.  “Thank you for letting me stay, Lee.”  Lilian spoke quietly, walking to the bed and sitting.

“Anything you need, Lil. Just like always.” Lee turned and gave her an absent shadow of a smile. “You sleep good tonight, you hear? You need anything, you just give me a shout or a call if I’m not here.”

“I will.  Thanks.”  Lil offered a small smile.  “Same goes for you.  I’m your guest, but I’m also your friend.”   And God knows you need one of those right now, her face said clear as day.

“I won’t forget.” Lee reached for the door, crooked another lifeless smile. “Good night, Lil.”

Then she was alone in the hallway, door shut, and ran a hand up inside her jacket to touch the Glock lightly. I need to change, and I need to work. Get your head on straight, Spencer, and get back on mission. This doesn’t change anything.

Something in her guts laughed at her. The hell it doesn’t.

Chapter Text

Seventeen hours of stake-outs. Two to plan how she’d approach driving up to the Punisher in the middle of a possible hit. One to reassure herself she wasn’t losing her mind. Lilian Stanfield had put most of the last three days into setting up her informal meet and greet with Punisher, and in the event she’d been a hundred meters away when the man she’d pegged as a target had picked up a cell phone, exchanged a few words with it, then collapsed with a bullet in his brain. He’d actually hit the floor before the window through which the bullet passed had succumbed to physics and shattered.

An improvised car chase through the streets of New York had added a great deal of noise and drama to what was, from that moment, essentially a busted operation.

Damn it.  I’m not going to get another piece of bait that good again, and I dropped it.  Thought like I was going after Castle, not three days after telling Lee that the new Punisher is something completely different... that he’s surgical rather than messy.  And now I’m back to square one, and the People of the Articles are sitting on enough guns and explosives to light Manhattan Island on fire.  Lilian kicked the door of her rented SUV open, sliding from the seat and letting her feet hit the pavement of the parking lot.   And I’m no closer to figuring out what they’re going to do with those guns than I was in Phoenix.

She didn’t have the door all the way closed before the cool metal of a silencer touched the back of her neck, and the light pole she’d parked under burst in a gleam of dying sparks. “You make quite a scene, Agent,” a voice murmured out of the darkness behind her. Too low to really make out, almost a growl, but maybe a tenor or an alto. Nothing like Castle’s bass, and yet... and yet that same tiger’s snarl to it. Soulmates, maybe. “You wanted to talk to me? Talk.”

Gun to the back of my neck.  Well, that’s new.  “You axed Little Tony two weeks ago.  On your way in, you took out his guards, including Big Tony.  Except Big Tony was actually your target, wasn’t he?  What he did to that girl, and hearing that he’d cut a deal to get off... Little Tony was just a bonus.”

“Theory. What do you want, Agent?” The growl shifted a little behind her, but the gun was as steady as iron. The old Punisher never shot a cop, not once, but the new one... who knew?

“He cut that deal with me.  Little Tony’s bosses have been moving guns and bombs, and I found out who they were moving to, and it’s a group that is going to do a lot worse things, to a lot more people, than Big Tony did to that girl.  He said he knew their plan.  I need to know... did you get to ask him any questions?  Do you know where the People of the Articles are going to hit?  When?  How?”

“Big Tony took a 10mm slug through the skull before he said a word. Tell me about the People of the Articles.” Not big on sharing, this one. At least, not from the sound of it.

“Terrorist organization.  Anti-federalists, but they mostly just like killing people.  Lots of people, and now they’ve got enough bombs and guns to do something on the scale of 9/11.  They’re nationally organized, entirely domestic, and ruthless enough they might even make you seem warm-hearted.”   And THIS is why we don’t summarily execute criminals, why hardly any effective government summarily executes criminals.  They know things we occasionally need to know!

“Doubtful.” Silence, almost thoughtful, from behind her. “You’re sure Tony’s bosses did the move. Timeframe?”

“They’ve had the ordinance for at least a month.  I expect they’re looking to get more - they’re not the sort of people to turn down a few more guns.  Still, they’ll move with what they’ve got.”

“Phone.” She felt the sudden, extra weight in her pocket. “It’s a burner, and it’s locked. Try to bust it, it goes dead. I’ll call when I have something for you. Keep it with you - I won’t leave a message.”

“Don’t go shooting any potential informants.”  Lil exhaled.  “If this attack isn’t stopped, I’m placing all the blame on you, and your time as a vigilante who’s mostly free from federal attention is over.  You’ll go on trial for the people you’ve killed, but I’ll be after you for the people you let die with your inability to understand how the war’s fought.  Because, if this attack isn’t stopped, it will be because of you, and the blood of every innocent who dies will be on your hands.”

“No deals, Agent.” The voice was as hard and cold as stone. “No deals. Ever.” Then the gun was gone from the back of her neck, and the presence from behind her.

“And that’s why you’re a bad thing to have in the world.  Why, for every life you save, you cost more than one in the end.”  Lil reached behind her, rubbing where she was sure the gun had left a bruise.

No one answered.

Chapter Text

Lee had been out of the town for the last three days, and the apartment felt full of ghosts without her. Too quiet, and the waiting for the phone to ring was beginning to wear on Lilian’s nerves. The police hadn’t been unhelpful, exactly, but it was more than a little obvious they’d long since concluded she was chasing ghosts and rumors and more than a little nuts besides. The results were exhausting, lonely, and ground on her like fine sand.

Then the phone rang at three in the morning on Thursday, the trill of its ring rattling her out of a fine sleep, and before she had it in her hand she knew the waiting was over.

“This is Stanfield.  Punisher?”  She spoke briskly, as calmly as she could.

“Found your lunatics. Nice load of hardware.” Through the phone, the growl was less deep - almost certainly a woman’s. “Couple of warehouses down by the docks just went up. Left you some informants, but they already talked. Target’s Washington - the whole mall, including the Capitol and the White House. Cells are already in motion. Control group is upstate - texting you the map reference. Better move, Agent.”

Shit.  “Thanks.”   Shit shit shit.  She pulled out her Bureau-issued phone and dialed the main office.  “Bill?  This is Lilian Stanfield.  Yes, it’s been too long.  Listen... you need to empty the Capital and move the President to a secure location.  Now.  I’ve got good intel on a likely threat, and I don’t have time to explain much.”  She pulled on her boots, lacing them quickly.  “It’s the People of the Articles, and they’re already moving.  I’m on my way to their command center, but I need boots on the ground in Washington to slow them down, and I need to know the President’s safe.”  Without another word, she hung up the phone, rushing downstairs to the car.

It was almost an hour’s drive to the little upstate town, even as fast as she could push the Lincoln, and by the time she pulled in she still didn’t have a clue how she was going to find the target. It could be a building, it could be a bunker....

Smoke boiled on the horizon, a stark signal white mixed with the black, and suddenly Lillian Stanfield wasn’t wondering how she was going to find it so much as how much of it was going to be left when she got there.

Punisher.  Again.  Lilian spun the wheel of the SUV hard, skidding it through the smoke of a set of flares and past two guard posts to rest as near to the arsenal itself as she could manage.  A moment later, she was out of the vehicle, her weapon drawn.  “Anyone inside... FBI.  Come out, unarmed, and I’ll guarantee your safety.”

“I don’t think I’m going to do that, Agent. Or that they will. The leader’s still alive, and he’ll stay that way even if he won’t walk again.” The growl came from inside the arsenal, its source invisible in against the stark light outside. “Some of the rest will survive if your medics are prompt. Used their rig to call them in - mass recall. I’d call in for roadblocks, if I were you.”

“You compromised a terror investigation and quite possibly cost us an untold amount of intelligence.  I still hold to what I said when we met.”  Lilian reached for her phone, making the necessary calls.  “I’m giving you one last chance, Punisher... give yourself up now.”

“I’m not going to do that, Agent Stanfield. Are you going to draw down on me?” Something slipped in that voice, or maybe clicked in Lilian’s head. It was definitely a woman’s voice, and there was something sad in it. Something that ached. “Because I’m going to walk out of here in a minute, and if you’re ready to be sensible we can do this easy.”

“I don’t know.  Are you going to stay out of the crime-fighting business and leave it to people who can actually save lives while doing it?”  Lil poked her head around the side of the car.

“No deals, Miss Stanfield. Not now, not ever.” She could make out the shadow of a figure in body armor, the suggestion of a rifle. “I don’t have all day, so time to get off the dime. Are you going to put the gun down?”

“Are you going to shoot a federal agent to get away?”  Lilian rose to her feet, holding her gun in a lowered position.

“I haven’t decided yet.” The smoke was drifting back across the arsenal now, thrown by the shifting wind, and she caught the suggestion of motion in it - the Punisher, moving with the cover. “Are you going to shoot me to stop me?”

“I’d really rather not, but I’m not entirely sure I won’t.  Of course, you’re in body armor and I’m in my pajama top with a jacket over it, and you’ve got an assault rifle and I’ve got a pistol, so I’m rather hoping this doesn’t turn into a shooting match.”

“Very sensible. I’m going to shoot out the tires on your SUV now, Agent Stanfield. Duck if it makes you feel more comfortable.” Two shots, quick as thunder but muffled by the suppressor on the rifle, and the shadow in the smoke dropped back out of sight again. The SUV developed a sudden, noticeable lean to the right.

“Well, wonderful.  Now you’ve stranded me without a vehicle in a terrorist camp.  Aren’t you a pleasant sort?”  Lil stepped fully out from behind the vehicle.  “For your next trick, are you going to coat me in whatever it is that Carnage eats and tie me to a wall?  Just as long as you don’t pull the trigger yourself, your conscience will be free.”

“There’s nobody mobile here left to hurt you, Agent. I made sure of that. Be seeing you.”

“Yes.  Yes, you will.”  Lilian turned back to the SUV, reaching for the radio.  “Hey... I’m going to need to be picked up from the coordinates I sent, as will an undetermined number of suspects.”

‘Unidentified’ turned out to be about a dozen, mostly gutshot, though the man whose uniform identified him as the leader of the group had bullets in his knees and several broken fingers. The computer system, unlocked, was still holding their data network open. There were also about thirty corpses, most of them in the narrow corridors that led from the arsenal itself to the underground command center buried beneath it and almost all of them still clutching their weapons. Combined with the bodies found strewn about the perimeter of the area, that brought the official death toll to approximately fifty-seven.

Including the cell killed near the dock warehouses and the bodies the NYPD found in the city over the next week, many of them killed execution-style after what was obviously vicious interrogation and all of them affiliated with the Mafia sponsors of Little Tony, the unofficial body count was probably closer to a hundred.

Lee got home that Saturday to find Lilian on the sofa, curled halfway around a pint of ice cream with the TV showing a reality show that was being aggressively ignored.  Lilian looked up from the packaging of the pint and gave Lee a weak nod.  “Hey.”

“Hey.” Lee set the bag over her shoulder down and crossed the room, sitting down on the edge of the couch and reaching down to brush a few strands of Lilian’s dark hair out of the way. “You look like hell.”

“Stopped the terrorists.  Saved the President... they’re likely pinning a medal to me as soon as they figure out which one’s right.”  Lilian turned a bit in her seat to lean against Lee.  “As well as offering me whatever job I want in the Bureau.  So... good week, except for the fact that nothing went right.”

“From what I read in the papers, sounds like all the bad guys got caught - some sort of communications foul-up that had them running right into roadblocks all the way from DC, right? - and no good guys got seriously hurt. That’s not things going right?” Without really meaning to, Lee slid fully into the couch and put her arm tight around Lilian. “For someone who’s pretty much the hero of the hour, you seem pretty down.”

“About two-thirds of the planners of the operation are dead, when I could have brought them in alive and handed them over to Homeland Security to learn everything from what they knew of the long-term agenda of their organization to what they had for lunch the day their first girlfriend split with them in middle school.”  Lilian leaned in close.  “But I lost my informant, which pretty much kiboshed that idea.”

“Well, you must have found another, right? I mean, you did figure out where they were, and the Bureau sent in some people and sorted it out. From what I read, it was damned impressive - bunch of guys holed up with heavy weapons ready to die for the cause, and not a single cop took a bullet. That’s really good work - even back in Recon, that would have been good work - and it’s not like it was your call to send in the heavies.” Lee nuzzled against Lilian’s hair softly, concealing her expression in the dark strands of it.

“My informant was Punisher.”  Lilian tilted her head back to look up at Lee.  “Well, shit, I did save the world.  Maybe I should be celebrating.”

“Yeah....” Lee trailed off, expression unreadable. Maybe thoughtful. “You want a drink? I’ve got a pretty good Kentucky bourbon.”

“Mmm... a drink would be nice.”  Lilian showed no sign of letting Lee get up.

“I’m going to have to get up to get it, you know.” Lee squeezed the other woman tightly for a minute, then pushed her shoulder gently. “You sure you’re okay?”

“Yeah.  You’re warm and I’ve had too much ice cream.”

“All right.” Lee gently extracted herself and came back a minute later with two glasses, a tray of ice and the bottle. She poured herself one on the rocks, a neat glass for Lilian, then wrapped her arm back around the smaller woman and held her tightly. “There - drink up. It’ll help.”

Lilian took her glass, drinking a long swig.  “Perfect.  Absolutely perfect.”

Lee’s own sip from her glass was more conservative, her eyes still thoughtful. “What’s he like?”

“Who?”  Lilian rested her head against Lee’s shoulder.

“The Punisher.”

“Well, to start with, pretty sure he’s a she.  And she’s not one for a lot of words.  Doesn’t preach, doesn’t make excuses.  Just does what she does.  A lot of people would find that admirable.”

“You don’t.” She didn’t phrase it as a question.

“I’m a cop.  A damn good cop, working for the federal government instead of a state or city, but I’m a cop, and that means certain values.  One of those is that, when you exercise the power to judge others, it has to be done with accountability.  Another is that we deal with criminals we do for a reason - because the way we do what we do ends in the most good, or at least the prevention of the most harm.  Yeah, scum gets to walk, but when they walk we get bigger scum.”  Lilian closed her eyes.  “It’s about justice, and it’s about protecting the people who need it.  But she’s not about those things... what she’s about is all in the name.”

“Guess so.” Lee kissed Lilian’s forehead softly, almost tenderly. “Can’t say it doesn’t make a certain amount of sense to me, but maybe that’s just the Force Recon Marine in me talking. No arguments, no deals. Just done.”

“‘No deals.’  That’s what she says, when any way of doing things other than hers is suggested.”  Lilian tilted her head back at the kiss.  “I can see the attraction of it, but... it’s wrong.  Unless you want a very different thing out of the work than what I want.  I think she’s looking for revenge, and for some reason either she can’t get revenge on whoever made her angry, or she got it and it wasn’t enough.  So now she’s out for revenge on the idea of violent crime, or of organized crime.”

“Or maybe she thinks that animals who spill blood in the streets ought to be put down instead of ‘rehabilitated’ or let walk ‘cause they can roll over on someone who’ll make a better headline.” It was a stupid thing to say and Lee knew it, knew she shouldn’t have started the conversation in the first place, knew she should be dropping the subject like a hot rock. The anger was burning her chest now, though, the same anger that had torn and twisted through her when she lay in the dark in that hospital bed and felt her chest throbbing where the bullets had gone through. That had left her shaking in the dark, swearing to the sweet beautiful ruined face in her dreams that she would give the animals that had killed him the same justice she’d given the enemies of her country for all those years he’d waited for her. She turned away to hide her face, because she knew her eyes were nothing Lil would understand. Or maybe, the voice in her head whispered, because you don’t want to see her face when she does.

“I wish we lived there.”  Lilian closed her eyes, pressing her face to Lee’s shoulder firmly.  “I wish we lived in the world where we could do the most good by just shooting the bastards, because I’ve seen plenty of them who earned it.  Fuck... I’ve met a few that I could imagine no better deed I could have done that day but to rip them apart barehanded.“

Maybe we do. Or maybe we don’t and she’s right. Does it matter to you, Lee? She held Lilian tighter, setting the brandy down so she could press both hands to the smaller woman, and admitted silently that it probably didn’t. For David, for Maria and Frank’s children, for all the unseen victims and the unavenged dead. There has to be a Punisher, and I couldn’t stop if I wanted to. So I guess this fucked up world and I need each other, after all.

“Don’t worry about it tonight,” she said softly in a voice that almost sounded like her own. Or maybe like what her own used to be, before that day in the park. “You’re exhausted.”

“Yeah.  Yeah, I am.”  Lilian tilted her head back and offered a smile.  “I am.”

“How about you finish your drink, and then I’ll put you to bed?” Lee’s own smile surprised her by being easy.

“Sounds good.”  Lilian laughed softly.  “Tempted to ask you to join me.”

Lee hesitated for a minute, then crooked a tiny smile. “What the hell. It’s a cold night, and we could both use the company.” She eased out of Lilian’s arms and drained the rest of glass, grabbing the ice cream with her other hand. “I’ll put this away.”

“Mm... company.”  Lilian smiled mysteriously, looking up at Lee before starting to rise from the sofa.

She didn’t mean... Lee shook the thought away and got the ice-cream back in the fridge, leaving her glass on the counter and flipping off the lights as she worked her way back to her bedroom and changed into a t-shirt and panties for the night. Her fingers brushed one of David’s old shirts, wistfully wanting, but it was too soon - too much blood still clinging to her. She knew it was irrational, but she also knew she’d wait at least another week before she could feel clean enough to wear it to bed again. She left it hanging where it was and padded over to the guest room, then eased the door open and slipped inside. “Hey.”

Lilian was in the bed already, sitting under the covers and leaning back against the headboard.  She smiled, gesturing for Lee to join her.  “Hey... I’m sorry if I made you uncomfortable.”

“About what?” Lee smiled in the half-light from the hall, slipping across the small room to peel the covers back under them and slide under. “Crime philosophy?”

“Nah.”  Lilian reached for Lee’s hand.  “My tone when you responded to the suggestion of coming to bed with me.”

Lee wrapped her fingers gently around Lilian’s, brushing a hand across her cheek in the dark. “You had a hell of a week, Lil. I think you’re pretty much allowed to use any tone you feel like at the moment.”

“Even if I’m likely to continue to feel like using that tone?”  Lilian sighed.  “Having kind of a full disclosure moment here.”

“I have this feeling,” Lee murmured with a wry smile she was just as glad Lil probably couldn’t see, “that I may be missing a cue card.”

“Lee, the night after the first time I met you, I had a dream about you.”  Lilian smiled at the memory.  “It was a very good dream.”

“Why would that ma... oh.” Lee was suddenly very still, her voice that particularly careful kind of toneless that tends to follow a sudden shift in one’s perspective on the universe. “When you said that you’ve never had a relationship with a guy go well....”

“Well, I’m not entirely unattracted to guys, or I wouldn’t keep trying.”  Lilian smiled softly.  “But, yeah, that’s not the direction I lean.”

Lee lay there in the dark a while, turning that thought over slowly without moving. It felt a little like the world had dropped out from under her, and she couldn’t have explained why to save her life.

“Are... you okay?”  Lilian turned to face Lee, concern in her eyes.

“I’m not sure.” Lee’s voice was unreadable, incredibly quiet and trembling just a little, but she didn’t let go of Lilian’s hand. “It’s not... if I’m not okay, it’s not because you like girls.”

“All right.”  Lilian gently squeezed Lee’s hand.  “If you don’t want to stay in bed with me knowing that... it’s okay.”

“I want to,” Lee admitted to the dark as much as to Lilian, “but I shouldn’t.” It sounded like the words hurt her, somewhere inside, but she said them anyway.

“Is there a reason you shouldn’t stay?”  Lilian rolled against her.  “I’ve got enough self-control, you know... I won’t be pawing at you in my sleep.  And you could probably use a night when you’re not alone, even if it’s just being held by a friend.”

Lee trembled, the warmth of Lilian’s nearness almost painfully tempting, and she closed her eyes to try to shut out the gaze she felt staring at her in the dark. “Would you say that if David was still alive?”

“If David was still alive, I wouldn’t have told you about my attraction to you, and you wouldn’t be this absolutely lonely.  But, if somehow you needed a night of being held as much as you obviously do now... yeah, I’d say that if David was still alive.”

“All right.” It was probably wrong and it hurt her somewhere inside where her self-regard lived, but Lee was too cold and too tired to try to pull away from that quiet, enfolding warmth. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I can’t. She sank into Lilian’s arms with a sigh that ached all the way through her, and kept her eyes closed. “All right, Lil.”

Lilian drew Lee in close, stroking her hair.  “Here... I have you.  You can sleep now...”

A sob rattled somewhere in Lee’s chest, up against the scar tissue around her lungs, but she quieted after a moment and seemed to settle. When she did sleep, a few minutes later, it was a deeper and more peaceful sleep than she’d had since the night she killed the men who’d murdered her husband.

Chapter Text

Three days, in most circumstances, was not a long time. A long weekend or a short trip, really.

Sunday, Monday and Tuesday in Cecilee Spencer’s apartment turned out to be pretty damn long. It wasn’t that they’d fought, or even that things had been cool between them. It was more like Lilian found herself watching Lee reconstruct the battered walls of work and solitude that the other woman was so obviously used to, and she hadn’t quite decided what to do about it yet. That gave the meals they had together and the one night of those three that Lee slept in her own bed a certain thick-hanging uncertainty, like the low pressure zone ahead of a storm.

“So... the Bureau chief asked me what I wanted to do next today.”  Lilian took a sip of her beer, looking at Lee across the table.  “Pretty much everything I was working on was dealt with, one way or the other, which has left me free to take a new posting.”

“Huh. The Bureau chief... that’s pretty high up. You really are the fair-haired girl, aren’t you?” Relief and disappointment both leaked into Lee’s voice, despite her best efforts, and she took a long sip of her own water before looking up from the mostly-finished salmon fillet she’d cooked tonight. She wouldn’t have admitted it, but the standard of the food she was eating had certainly improved since Lilian had moved in. The cutting voice of her conscience tried to suggest something else she was obviously hoping might improve, but she pushed it away. I didn’t do anything that would have hurt David. I didn’t do anything wrong. How she feels isn’t my business. She realized she’d let the silence drag on a little too long, and offered Lil a faint smile when she finally lifted her eyes to the smaller woman’s. “So, where’s the new assignment?”

“Well... in theory, I’ll be a roving agent, just like before, but I’ll be basing out of Manhattan.  They’ve been trying to assemble a team to keep tabs on the vigilante element... not necessarily for arrest, but to make sure we have as much information as possible in case one goes off the rails.”  Lilian drank another swallow of her beer.  “I wanted to stay in town, and... well, I think the work’s going to be important.  I won’t be running the team, but I’ll have a lot of influence over how it does its work.”

“So you’re going to be chasing, what, Spider-man? That’ll make that idiot Jameson happy.” Lee crooked a smile that she didn’t feel, as natural as it was, because her heart had suddenly turned to ice. Fuck.

“Apparently, they’ve got three volunteers for going after Spider-Man already.  No... I’m going to start with a few of the mutants - clean up the files, mostly, to eliminate some of the chaff from the bad old days.  But then it’s on to the more dangerous sorts... Venom, Punisher.  The people nobody else has any interest in going within five blocks of.”

“Jesus, Lil....” She swallowed hard, fighting for control of the sudden storm in her chest. “Why?”

“Someone has to do it, that’s why.”  Lilian leaned back, setting her beer on the table.  “And I’m one of the agents with the best chance of living through it.  I’m good, and I know how good I am - what I can bite off.  The information I’ll be gathering and compiling will save lives if any of that lot go far enough that the higher-ups decide they need to be brought in.  And a lot of them seem to switch whether they’re protecting or killing people based on what they ate that morning, so some of them will have to be brought in.”

And when that has to be done, you’ll be right up at the front on the hunt, won’t you? Lee couldn’t ask, and didn’t need to. Lil would volunteer to do the tough, dangerous job because that was the kind of woman she was - the kind of woman she’d always been. John had said they were so alike he half-expected to hear Lilian’s voice coming out of his Sergeant’s mouth, and Lee had never been able to argue with him. Semper Fi might be the Marine motto, but Lil lived it as much as any leatherneck ever did.

Which made her the most dangerous house-guest imaginable for a woman who’d spent two of her last three nights doing recon for a hit on a mob-run crack and whore house the cops were too busy taking pay-offs to shut down.

“Sounds like a long term gig,” she said instead of any of the hundred other things that ran through her head, because information gathering was something she’d learned to do by reflex years ago.

“Yeah... as long as I want it, really, unless someone gets elected who either calls in due on all of the vigilantes - at which point I’d tender my resignation because that’s too hot even for me - or I get myself hurt.  I’m planning to stick with this until I retire at a ripe young age for a healthy government pension.”

“Well... you probably want your own place, but you know you can stay as long as you want.” Lee heard the words come out of her mouth, and somehow managed not to have a visible double-take. Where the hell did that come from?

“I should find my own place... or at least start paying you rent.”  Lilian reached for her beer once more.

“If you want; it’s not like I pay rent, myself. David...” The hurt caught her off-guard, choked off her voice, and she had to fight down the ache of wetness in her eyes before she could make her voice level again. “He wanted us to have a place that was ours.”

Lilian leaned forward, catching Lee’s hand.  “I’ll at least be here long enough to find a place.  If we decide we want me to stay... we’ll work out how I pay for my keep.”

“All right.” Lee nodded without looking at her, her eyes still fixed somewhere in the middle distance as they moved over the apartment. “That sounds fine.”

Lilian squeezed Lee’s hand tightly.   God, she hurts so much.  Every time we’re together she shows another layer of it....

“I’m going to clean up.” Lee disentangled her hand from Lilian’s and started to clear the table, her voice smooth. “Want me to get you another beer?”

“Another beer would be good.  I don’t start work for another two weeks; I should probably enjoy not being on call 24 hours a day for at least part of it.”  Lilian winked, rising to her feet to consolidate the dishes and make them easier for Lee to clear.

“Grab the couch - I’ll bring it out in a minute.” Lee carried the dishes into the kitchen, handling them with an easy deftness, and set the water running in the sink one-handed.

“Sounds good.”  Lilian walked to the sofa, straightening the coffee table a bit before sitting.

The water cut off about two minutes later, and Lee walked in with her shirt-sleeves rolled up and an open beer in her right hand and a bowl of pretzels and nuts in her left. She set the bowl on the table, handed the beer to Lilian with a distracted smile, then vanished back into the kitchen without a word.

“Want to watch anything before bed?”  Lilian smiled softly and sipped her beer.   Am I about to invite her to bed with me again?  I think I am.

“You pick,” Lee called from the kitchen, her voice underlaid by the soft clink of glass and china. She wouldn’t leave it until it was as immaculate as the rest of the house - everything perfect, everything in its place. Almost everything.

“At least give me some guidance.  Movie or TV show, funny or scary?”  Lilian turned to kneel on the sofa, facing toward the kitchen.   God, she’s beautiful.  Most so when she’s smiling, which happens... well, hardly ever, and never as brightly as it should.

“TV - I don’t want to be up long enough for a movie. Clever.” Lee set the last of the dishes in the drying rack and unplugged the sink, her mind still drifting in the familiarity of the ritual and the distant comfort of running on autopilot and memory. “You want anything else from the kitchen, darling?”

Darling?  “No... the beer’s good.  I’ll put on something British.”

“Are you sure? I could throw some crab cakes together - it wouldn’t take too long, and it’s one of your...” she stopped, hand on the open refrigerator, at the small empty drawer where she always, always kept crab for crab cakes because David had fallen in love with them the first night she’d cooked them and she’d cooked them for him more weeks than not until...

The choked sound of her pain ripped all the air out of her lungs, and the refrigerator door thumped closed as she slid down it and settled on the floor, knees tucked under her and her face buried in her hands to hold back the tears.

In an instant, Lilian was there, her arms around Cecilee tightly, drawing the larger woman close.  “Here... I’ve got you.”

“Don’t touch me,” Lee gasped into her shoulder, and the lean power of that frame - god, she was toned - shook against her with pent-up emotion.

“Sorry...”  Lilian’s arms stayed where they were.  “I don’t think I can do that.”

“Don’t touch me!” Lee’s voice was a live, blazing thing in the air, and she pushed up off the ground in a driving throw that slammed Lilian up against the far wall of the dining room - bare inches from one of the chairs - with an iron-hard hand locking her wrists against her chest and the other bare centimeters from her throat. Lee stood there, trembling, her eyes still wild and burning, and then her hands dropped away and she stumbled back a step with stunned horror forcing the rage from her face. “Oh, Jesus, Lil....”

“All parts accounted for...”  Lil trembled in surprise and fear, but they did not touch her voice or her manner.  “I’m all right... a bit bruised.”  She reached with a shaking hand for Lee’s face before letting the hand fall.  “Worried about you.”

Control. You have to control your anger, because if you let it control you, you will be dead at best. At worst, you’ll kill without thinking - guilt or innocence be damned. You’ll make yourself like them, and dishonor your dead. Control above all, Lee. Frank’s voice in her head rebuked her, left her cheeks burning with shame, and Lee dragged in a breath as she forced her hands back through the short blond length of her hair and demanded that her pulse slow and her breathing settle. After a long minute, they obeyed. Finally, when she could be sure that her voice wouldn’t shake, she managed words. “I can’t apologize, Lil. I had no right....”

“You told me not to touch you.  I didn’t listen.  I’ll ask where that throw came from later... but I’ll apologize and so will you and we’ll count my bruises against your lost pride and consider that settled.  But Lee... I’m worried about you.”

“I’m all right. Five by five.” Automatic answer - a soldier’s answer. She would have said the same thing with five bullets in her. Had said the same thing, before she’d gotten a second look at her husband’s face and started screaming. She hadn’t stopped for forty minutes, scraped lung or no scraped lung, until the nurses put what one of them called enough sedatives to drop a tiger into her.

“Lee... I’m worried about you, but you also just threw me across a room.  Do you really want to lie to me right now?”  Lilian raised an eyebrow.  “Federal agent... kind of trained not to be fooled by those.”

“Shit.” The taller woman pulled in a breath, ran her hand across her face. “I thought... for a minute, I lost track of what was going on and I thought I was cleaning up after dinner with David. I opened the fridge, the crab wasn’t there, and suddenly he was gone all over again. I lost it a little. Accurate enough for you?”

“Yeah.”  Lilian nodded, letting her hand hover near Lee’s.  “I figured that was what happened... which is why I’m worried.  Babe, you hurt more than anyone can handle as long as you’ve taken it.  I’ve got no idea how you’re standing, but I know it can’t last.”

“I manage. I’ve been doing better.” Lee pulled in her breath, and her voice was steady. Honest. Sincere as hell. “Work helps - it gives me something to focus on. It’s just, having you here... I guess it makes me think of him. Of being...” her voice broke, and she couldn’t make the last word come, and it didn’t matter anyway.

“Happy’s not a sin.”  Lilian offered a small smile.  “Let’s sit on the sofa and just... talk until we’re too tired to talk.”

“All right.” Lee crooked a little smile at her in return. “I guess, since I bruised you up, it’s only fair.”

Lilian led Lee to the sofa, sitting and smiling up at her.  “Interesting night.”

“Livelier than usual, around here.” Lee’s lips twitched, and she hesitantly reached out to brush Lilian’s face. “You sure you’re okay?”

“Yeah.”  Lilian leaned lightly into the touch.  “Yeah, I’m okay.  A few bruises... no worse than I get when I wrestle.”

“Good. It’s been a while since I did hand-to-hand, but I guess reflex doesn’t really go away.” Lee’s fingertips were soft and a little rough where they touched Lilian’s face, lingering on the hollow under her jaw.

Lilian’s lips parted.   No, Lil, you are not going to kiss her.  That is the exact wrong thing to do right now.  “Your reflexes were really well-trained...”

“Force Recon, First Battalion, First Marine Division, USMC. Swift, Silent and Deadly.” Lee quirked a smile that looked wry on her lips, and so damn good it ought to have been a crime. “Semper Fi, Lil. It never goes away.”

Fuck.  No, not kissing her.  “Maybe I should have joined up, then... that throw would be useful in my work.”

“It was worth missing.” Even as she said it, even as she knew it was true objectively, Lee could taste the lie in the words. Here’s something you don’t know, soldier - something nobody’s told you. You’re not haunted by the war - you miss it. Welcome back. She remembered the shock of recognition, the bittersweet echo of a smile on Frank’s face, and it put a warmth into her voice she knew must sound strange. “Ugly little wars in messy, dusty countries.”

There’s something odd about that tone.  But I’ve pressed her enough for one night.  “Yeah... though I’m not entirely sure, sometimes, that I found better.  I just get to see the worst of here instead of the worst of over there.”

“Be easier if you didn’t keep trying to throw yourself into the lion’s mouth. I mean, Venom? Isn’t that SHIELD’s job?”

“I’m not sure SHIELD knows what their job is, honestly... or that they have one that’s set.  It’s in the country, it’s police work, and that makes it the Bureau’s job.  If SHIELD wants to try to step in on it, Fury can talk to me.”  Lilian winked.  “I’ll make sure to get his autograph before he leaves, though.”

“Get one for me, too. That’s one tough son of a bitch.” Lee didn’t try to hide the admiration in her voice.

“Yeah... yeah he is.”  Lilian brushed her hand against Lee’s.  “Yeah, he is.”

“Lil....” Lee turned her hand, slowly running her fingers long Lilian’s, and her eyes drifted down to the touch as if it was something she was half-afraid might bite her. “I’m still his wife.”

“You’ll always be his wife...”  Lilian spoke quietly.  “But we’re not made for being alone.  None of us are.”

“I don’t know how else to...” Lee’s voice trailed away in a sound of frustration, as though the words escaped her.

“You can let yourself be loved without ceasing to love him.”  Lilian squeezed Lee’s hand gently.  “I know you’ll always love him.”

“No, I know that, but I’m his wife.” Lee looked down at her, and there were shadows in those vivid eyes that could have swallowed the sun. “‘Forsaking all others,’ Lil. How could I look him in the eye if I let someone else take his place in my bed?”

“He loves you, Lee.”  Lilian lowered her eyes.  “He loves you, and he wasn’t a man who held a lot of illusions about what people are and what they need.  I can’t imagine him wanting your bed empty the rest of your life.  I can’t imagine that being...”  Lilian trailed off.  “I’m sorry.”

“It’s what it is.” Lee shrugged a little, subtly, but left her fingers tangled with Lilian’s. “If it was anyone... well, he always liked you. Used to joke that if John and I were ever home at the same time, he’d take you two out with us and call it a double date.” She was silent for a long minute, feeling the weight of the night outside, and then whispered so softly it was almost inaudible. “Why would you want someone who’s always going to have her first loyalty to the dead, Lil?”

“Because it’s you.”  Lilian lifted her head and offered a small, sad smile.  “That’s all.”

Lee looked down at her for a long while, not saying anything, and listened to the silence in her head. Felt for the searing jolt of disapproval she expected, the horror that David surely would have felt at the idea, but nothing came. Would he really not mind, she wondered in the stillness, or do I just not remember him well enough any more to care as much as I should?

Nothing answered her.

After another little death of silence, she bent down and kissed Lilian Stanfield full on the mouth.

Lilian released a quiet, surprised sound before her arms wrapped around Cecilee’s neck, and she pressed herself desperately, hungrily into the kiss, her eyes closing.   She kissed me.  That’s all right, isn’t it?  Any consideration of the question faded within the first seconds.

The moon was out by the time Cecilee’s strong arms slid around her and carried her to the bed in the guest room, and they made love - or maybe just fucked, or maybe something in between - on the half-pulled back comforter with their clothes in a messy heap on the floor. It was long and silent and fierce, and when she looked into Lee’s eyes at the moment of release, Lilian could see tears and a tiger’s fury in them. Then the world burned white with pleasure, and she didn’t see anything but stars for a long while after.

When she was aware of thought and time once more, she found herself clinging tightly to Cecilee’s torso, her face pressed against the taller woman’s side, and the first words she heard were whispered, half-coherent endearments she was surprised to realize where coming from her own mouth, in her own voice.  When that sank in, she nestled closer and closed her eyes. Relearned how to breathe.

Lee’s fingers stroked her hair, quietly soothing, and she could almost feel the other woman’s eyes - still open in the dark, looking up at the ceiling now. Looking at something only she could see.

Lilian crawled up the taller woman's body languidly, brushing her lips against Cecilee’s neck.  “My heart is still pounding.”

“I can hear it.” The murmur was soft, a little distant. Warm, maybe even fond, but not all there.

“It feels nice.”  Lilian pressed her lips to Cecilee’s skin again.  “What do you see?”

“You don’t want to know,” Lee said into the dark.

“Whatever you see, whatever you’re looking at...”  Lilian settled herself into the crook of Cecilee’s arm.  “I’m here, as long as you’ll have me.”

There was no answer, at least in words, but Cecilee’s arm tightened around her a little as if to hold her in place. After a while, she slept.

Lee lay in the dark, eyes still open, and dreamed about war.

Chapter Text

The files on the Punisher were.... extensive. Whoever had compiled them had been positively OCD, which was about their only redeeming feature - the organization might have been airtight and the selection of associated cases, expert testimonies and prior investigative reports might have been comprehensive, but the short analysis document attached was pure shit and the index was full of holes. It was, in short, less of a nightmare than she’d expected considering how grudgingly the Bureau had turned it over to her.

Lilian Stanfield sat down at the table in one of the meeting rooms she’d half surrounded with the boxes full of files and folders, opened her coffee, flipped open her legal pad and uncapped three pens - red, green and black.

First to sort one Punisher from the other... time’s the easiest approach, but is anyone really sure when one retired and the other entered action - or if, for that matter, the first is really retired at all?  They didn’t know she was a woman until I brought it up...  Lilian tapped her pen against the desk, which was entirely covered in the documents from the file.   Three stacks... Old, New, and Uncertain, then I move on from there.  When I’m done, I’ll have two different files, and the larger of the two I’ll be able to read through then set aside for now.

Of course, that was a larger order than it seemed - simply sifting through the documents and sorting them by date was a six-hour task alone, and it left a sizable fourth stack - documents that weren’t clearly marked with a date.   Someone who’s worked this file had no respect at all for proper filing procedures.

Still, six hours with four stacks was an improvement.  Lilian took the fourth stack, thumbing idly through it.   What do we know for sure about the new Punisher, which isn’t true of Castle?  She’s a woman, and she prefers to snipe instead of walking into buildings with fully automatic weapons filling the air with lead.  That’s... not much... but it could help sort these.  God, I’m going to have so many bad data points that forming a hypothesis will be nigh-impossible... maybe I should have stuck with Venom.  At least he’s got a set MO.

Another cup of coffee was in her hand - she’d lost count of how many she’d consumed - as she lifted the third stack.   Dated unknowns.  These could provide better information... there will be a few that are obviously one Punisher or the other, which will help me pin down the exact date of the changeover and give me a better feel for them both.  With that thought, she began to read.

A knock at the door rattled her out of her file, twenty pages of tightly-bunched notes later, and when her head came up she found Richard Talbot leaning in the doorway. He was a big man, black as his coffee as he liked to joke, and he added to the effect by keeping his head shaved down to a crisp quarter-inch of hair or less all the way around. He was also the second-best shooter on the team - his groups averaged a half-inch or less looser than Lilian’s. She hadn’t seen him since Chicago, and it had been one of the only really welcome surprises when she got a look at the team roster.

“Boss wants to know if you’re ever coming out,” he observed blandly, “or if we ought to just have them ship MREs in for you.”

“I’ll be coming out as soon as I’m at a stopping point.”  Lilian held up the document she was reading.  “I’m trying to figure out which Punisher is which, because the one running about now is certainly not Frank Castle.  Problem is, whoever worked this case in mid-decade didn’t know how to put a date on a piece of paper.”

“Which decade?” Talbot pulled out one of the chairs that wasn’t covered in files and settled in, sipping his own cup of coffee like it was damn near midnight. “Last I heard, the old guy was working up to forty years in the business and what, three thousand bodies we know about?”

“Come to think of it, I’m not sure which decade, but I’m pretty sure it’s the middle of the last one... 2000s, aughts, whatever you call them.”  Lilian shrugged, flipping to the next page.  “Any clue who was working it then?”

“Someone the Bureau thought was a waste of space, probably. We were right in the middle of the Homeland Security craze, remember? Looking over our shoulders for the next 9/11, chasing down every Hasam and Mohammed we could get our hands on. The domestic nut who stuck to blowing away dealers and soldiers, nobody gave a fuck about. Last person the Bureau had on the Punisher case who gave a shit, as I recall, was probably old Latimer back in the ‘80’s.. Real tough gunslinging old fucker. You’d have liked him.”

“Any idea where I can find Latimer?”  Lilian tapped her pen against the desk, inspiration sparking in her eyes.   If I can find someone really familiar with Castle, I can make short work of these files... and it’s this Latimer or Spider-Man for that.

“City Point Cemetery. He got blown away in a firefight with the Marconis in … ‘93? ‘94? Something like that. My dad knew him, but I was just a kid so I don’t remember exactly. Look, Lil...” Richard looked up from his coffee, and his dark eyes were as serious as she’d ever seen them. “You know people on this case are either a joke or better have their life insurance paid up, right?”

“Yeah.”  Lilian sipped her coffee.  “Yeah, I’ve noticed that.  I’m planning to be an exception, but honestly won’t be surprised if I’m not.  But... we took an oath, you know?  And someone worth a damn has to be on this one, or we’re deliberately shirking on that oath out of fear.  I’m scared... but I’m not running.”

“You got the biggest brass ones in the Bureau, Lil, and that’s a fact. Your girlfriend’s gotta walk bow-legged when you’re done with her.” Richard’s grin was pure old-school Bureau. “All right, so what’s your next step? More paper?”

“It’s all paper until we’re called to bring them in... but I need some people to help me sort my paper.  So I dig up everyone worth a damn who’s looked into anything either Punisher has been into who’s not already in the dirt, and I get what I can out of them so I can figure out who these shootings belong to and start building models.”

“Better you than me, girl. I’m off to shake down some contacts about what’s left of the Hood’s gang, then I’m going to call it a night.” He stood up, drained his coffee, then squeezed her shoulder.  

“I should probably do something else for a bit anyway... you need a bad cop?”  Lilian smiled up at him.  “I do a good bad cop.”

“Sure, Lil, just don’t beat anyone who’s gonna file a complaint. You don’t wanna mess up your first month on the job, right? The Almighty King of Paper wouldn’t like that, and he has his list and is checking it twice.”

“You know me... they never find the bruises.”  Lilian winked, pushing herself to her feet.

**********

The old black Dodge was perfect for urban work - non-descript, just expensive enough not to be police issue and just beat up enough not to be some mob hitter on retainer. It looked like nothing, and that was just how Lee liked it. The less chance someone had of guessing just how much power she’d crammed under the hood of this bitch and just how many tricks it had up its sleeve, the better she liked it. Victory comes from preparation, deception, flexibility and precision. That was how they’d taught her to do it back at Pendleton, and Frank had honed those lessons with everything he’d learned in thirty years on the streets of New York. He’d offered her one of his vans for surveillance, but she’d turned him down - she wanted something that she could blend with the traffic in, and the Dodge had worked out perfectly so far.

She’d been off the streets a little lately, working individual kills and then lying low after the People of the Articles op. That had its drawbacks, ‘cause the scum on the street had short memories and were liable to get bolder if they felt relaxed. Especially since the new crews in the Bronx were fresh off the boat from Serbia and Uzbekistan, and they didn’t know the rules of the road yet. They were the lords of the old country, and they figured they were soldiers. They figured nobody in soft, stupid America knew how to play it hard. They thought they were wolves among sheep.

Lee figured they’d never heard what happened to the wolves in America, back before they were an endangered species.

Tonight was the Uzbeks, and that was easy - she’d always had an ear for languages, and the Corps had been real interested in Central Asia back when she’d joined up. She couldn’t pass for a native, but she knew the language well enough to get by in. Well enough to listen, if she could get close enough. So here she was, tailing “Billy” Karimov and his tough-talking soldier buddies. The old man was hard to find - he’d come up in the old country, hiding from the KGB, and he knew how to lay low. His son liked to live it up, and that made him easy. Even his tail checks were amateur hour.

Easy pickings.

She slid into an open spot a block or so from where her target had pulled in and slipped out, shouldering the long case from the back seat and the cased high-power binoculars, then booked it across the street into the best hunting blind she could see and started work. It took five minutes to peg their hang-out (back kitchen, around a cheap dining room table) and twenty more to case the perimeter and find a hunting blind with good cover. Then she unlatched the long, hard-shelled case she’d been carrying and got to work.

Laser microphones weren’t illegal - not exactly - but they weren’t easy to come by either. This one had been a gift from Frank, but he’d kept it on a big swivel rig made for setting up in an apartment building somewhere and leaving for weeks. She’d stripped it for parts and rebuilt it onto the frame of a Remington 700, replaced the tape deck with a digital recorder pack, and gotten a surveillance kit that she could truck in on her shoulder. She’d added an infrared scope, just for something to do with her eyes, and now she settled into her blind and adjusted her earpiece as she settled the rifle onto her shoulder and the bipod onto the ground in front of her. Then, watching the heat-shadows of her targets deal a fresh hand of cards, she emptied her mind and started listening.

They were very talkative. That was good. Sloppy, but good. Anti-terrorism concerns had pulled a lot of NYPD and federal manpower off the organized crime beat, and the animals were beginning to relax. Time was that even fresh meat wouldn’t have dared talk in a house like that for fear somebody was tapping in. Now, they knew the resources were elsewhere. They felt safe.

Just stay fat and happy a little while longer, assholes. Lee smiled in the dark, and it would have made the hard men in the kitchen shudder to see it. Keep talking ‘til I’ve got your whole organization mapped, and then we’ll see how safe you are.

Chapter Text

The only city in America that’s arranged in layers.  Lilian made her way through the architectural undergrowth, silently musing as she went.   Like they teach you about the rainforest, in school... the canopy, the... okay, can’t remember the rest of it.  But the metaphor sticks even if I can’t remember enough of it to articulate it.  Those that can are in the places that rise to see the sun, and those who can’t... live in the shadows of the high places.  The lower, the deeper the shadow, the more desperate the people.

Intricate, half-remembered metaphors did little to clear her mind of worry or to find out about the Punisher, though, so she set them aside.   I need to find a good local bakery.  And a good local grocery store.  And... wow, for a girl who’s been in town for months and who has a good job and a girlfriend, I’ve done essentially no settling in at all.  How’ve I gotten away with that without starving?  Oh, yes, girlfriend who insists on cooking and keeping the fridge full.  That... really shouldn’t be something I’m complaining about.

“So why am I?”   Because she always looks exhausted, and won’t let me pick up any of the slack.  By the time I know something’s needed, she’s gone to get it; by the time I notice something’s a mess, she cleans it.  She won’t even let me clean my bedroom - I’d say it’s our bedroom, since she’s there nearly every night I’m home, but the master bedroom’s hers and mine’s a place she visits.  Damn it, Lil, you’re supposed to be trying not to be depressed!  She stopped after crossing an intersection and slapped herself lightly on the face.   Smile, damn it!

I really should love this city... there’s so much to love about it.  And my work is here, and my work’s important, and Cecilee’s here, and I’ve been in love with her for ages.  But I haven’t fallen in love with New York yet.  It’ll come.  Lilian paused in front of a sandwich shop.   And it’ll start with a decent panini.  Let’s see what the Big Apple has to offer.

She left the shop twenty minues later, ten dollars poorer, and entirely satisfied with her decision.   Okay, yeah, I can live here.  May miss the West Coast on occasion, but if the sandwiches are this good, all I’ll be lacking for are mountains and hippies.  And what girl can’t live without hippies?  A sad, pathetic, girl who’s far too attached to her hometown, that’s who.  A small smirk crossed Lilian’s face.   Though I doubt the pot here’s nearly as good.  Damn it, now I’m getting nostalgic again.

Lilian paused at a soda machine before finding a bench.   I should really cut back on the Mello Yello... it’s going to kill me before the Mob gets a chance, at this rate.  And speaking of things that are going to kill me... still no real progress on the Punisher case.  I’ve got a few more shootings tentatively sorted, but there’s nobody anywhere who’ll admit to having talked to either Castle or the new girl apart from me.  I really have to find someone who knew Castle... who knew him well enough to tell me more than basics.  And who’s alive... seems everyone who admits to knowing him ends up dead.  I really don’t want to be reduced to standing on buildings waiting for Spider-Man to swing past...

She took a long swig of the soda, letting the artificially generic citrus taste wash over her tongue.   So, what makes the Punisher the Punisher?  With Venom, it’s easy - alien symbiont giving super-strength and invulnerability and a propensity for taking out your anger on the most convenient target.  Punisher, though... that’s more an idea than a power.  A philosophy.  What did she say?  “No deals.”  No deals, enough violence to fill an entire twelve-screen cinema with summer blockbusters, and an obsession with crime - specifically, organized crime.  The method of the violence, for the moment, is irrelevant, and probably linked more to talent and training than to values and philosophy.  So let’s play Freud... put my imaginary Punisher on my sofa, have her tell me about her mother.

One.  Punisher is angry.  Two.  Punisher is disillusioned with conventional justice.  Three.  Punisher is uninterested in second chances.  Derived conclusion from three: Punisher either doesn’t think people can be truly rehabilitated or just doesn’t give a damn.  Four.  Punisher is the best-trained death machine this side of Magneto.  Topic for later: How did Punisher become that?  Five.  Punisher is either suicidal, confident to the point of madness, or both.  Six.  Punisher is uninterested in a partnership with anyone else - when Castle finished training the new girl, he set her loose and she’s working alone now.  Derived from six: Punisher is antisocial, probably to the point of personality disorder.  Seven.  Punisher is brilliant.  Derived from seven: Punisher’s psychoses are unlikely to have been caused by brain damage.  Eight.  Punisher has access to sufficient resources to properly equip herself for any danger she might face.  Nine.  Punisher spends nearly all her time on her crusade.  Derived from nine: Punisher’s work life and social life are both extremely limited - likely the minimum required to fund the crusade and avoid suspicion.  Ten.  Punisher is without doubt of her own righteousness.

And that’s what we know about the inside of her head.  Not a lot to go on, but I should be able to assemble something. She pushed up off the bench, dropping the can into the nearest trash bin, and she felt a little lighter on her feet when she started back up the street to the office than she had when she’d walked out for lunch. Seven days of file-spelunking, a basic outline of a profile. Who says we civil servants don’t earn our lordly salaries?

********************

Lee pushed herself up out of her chair and stretched, the long muscles in her shoulders protesting the enforced inactivity of the last couple of hours, and she grabbed one of the barbells off the wall rack and started working a few reps absently while she went over the map again in her head. It had been the biggest gift Frank had passed onto her three years ago, and even if almost everything on it had moved or changed by now it was still as invaluable now as it was then. The old man had built it for thirty years, one brick at a time, until you could look at the sprawling web of it and pick out every major supplier and distributor in New York. Weapons, drugs, women, hired guns, crazy supervillians - every scrap of solid information on the filth that pushed or provided them went into the map, just like the antibodies. Spider-man, Daredevil, the NYPD, the FBI. Homeland Security, though which side of the line they were cataloged under he never said. A living architecture of crime and punishment for the city of New York and everything that touched it.

The first time she’d seen it, she’d thought it was a mess. By the time she’d understood it, she knew it was the second most beautiful thing she’d ever seen.

Almost as beautiful as David’s face when he’d settled into her arms as her husband.

The rage pulsed up her spine, and she used it to sharpen her thoughts into scalpels as she turned over her notes for the last week. Recon had been good - more than good. The Serbs were a little better than the Uzbeks - they didn’t talk so much, anyway - but she’d used Connie to get one of them drinking and he’d turned out to like to brag. So had his buddies. By the time they were done, she’d had all the leads in the world. She’d be a month following all of them up, updating everything that had slid out of date, and she was starting to feel the restless itch at the base of her neck. The one that said she was losing the initiative. That she needed to be out there, making sure they knew her name. His name.

She pushed it down. Haste ruins more operations than bad luck, bad timing and bad planning. Think it all the way through, then make your move. Her teachers in the Corps had put it that way, time and time again. Frank’s formulation had been simpler and cruder: slow, slow, quick, or you’re fucked every time. Rushing in just gets your head blown off. She wondered who he’d learned that one from. Probably Vietnam. Four tours were a hell of an education, and didn’t she know it?

She sat down with the map and got back to work. Relearn the ground, and then you can plan. Plan, and then you can hunt.

Chapter Text

Sniper rifles.  Submachine guns. Pistols.  Explosives.  Knives.  Photographs spread across Lilian’s desk - corpses, mutilated in the ways only the most powerful personal weapons could tear them apart, each paired with a photograph of the weapon the forensics labs thought most likely to have been used.  

Sniper rifles.  Submachine guns. Pistols.  Explosives.  Knives.  Where does one learn to use those?  Castle could have taught her one, maybe two, which widens the possibilities.  Thus, to learn her background, we take lists of the places one learns each one and see which places are on two lists.

She lifted a photograph of a long rifle, equipped with a scope, brushing her fingers down the barrel.   Military... special forces.  SWAT.  Intelligence... though nobody at CIA or DHS would admit it.  Some of the weapons she’s used aren’t hobbyist weapons, though I suppose a self-taught sniper could exist.  Doubt they’d be as good as her... takes formal teaching and practical experience.

Next was a knife - a long-bladed combat knife, capable of deep cuts.   Johnson tells me the way she uses this isn’t taught at any dojo he knows, so she didn’t learn it at a martial arts school.  Military or National Guard, most likely.  Perhaps paramilitary or militia, if there’s a trained soldier doing the teaching.  It’s not a cop knife or a cop style.

Silenced submachine guns... finally something the regular military doesn’t find much use for.  Special Forces shows up again, and SWAT, and terrorists.  I wouldn’t be surprised if DHS has a few hundred Silenced Submachine Gun Commandos marching around East Europe searching for dissidents against Uncle Sam’s favorite despots, but I’ve got no proof they do so I’ll leave Intel off this.

And now the explosives... military-grade stuff, but the basics can be learned in a great many places.  Military, National Guard, SWAT, paramilitary, terrorist, intelligence, civil engineers... hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if NYU offered a course in Proper Placement of Explosives 101.

Her sigh filled the room for nearly a minute.   Which means that I’ve really narrowed down the possibilities not at all, though I do have a rough continuum of probability.  Most likely military, and within military there’s a disproportionate possibility of her being special forces.  After that comes SWAT, then National Guard, then paramilitary, then intelligence, then terrorist.  So now I build my psych profile and find ex-special forces members living in the greater New York area who match it, and I’ll be down to about a thousand suspects... and a constantly increasing feeling that God Himself has a personal distaste for my lipstick.

Lilian found another cup of coffee in her hand, not entirely sure how it arrived there, and shrugged, taking a drink.   Psych profile, which requires talking to someone who knows Punisher better than I do.  Which means...  Lilian blinked, her eyes passing over the photos on her desk.   Damn, for one of the most brilliant federal agents on the Eastern seaboard, I’m an idiot.

Each was labelled - date, time, case number, photographer, badge number of the detective who requested they be taken.  No piece of data was shared between any two pictures save one - of the five photographs of corpses, four had the same badge number.

It’s time for me to pay a visit to good Detective 5541.

*******************

The turf war hadn’t exactly been a surprise - it wasn’t like her targets had ever been taught to play well with others, after all - but Lee had to admit she wished they’d waited just a little longer. She’d been working her false IDs and contacts hard, trying to get ahead of the month-long deadline she’d set herself, and the young turks on both sides had been invaluable. Karimov the younger and his boys had a predictable routine, tended to use houses for their little get-togethers and were loose-tongued among themselves; she’d used them to work their connections, their suppliers, their “legitimate” connections. She still didn’t have the old man or his right hand guns, and that was a loose end that could come and bite her on the ass, but with a week to go she’d got the whole rest of the Uzbek organization mapped. Her Serbian drinking buddies had been less forthcoming and less informed, and while she’d worked the tails hard she was only about sixty, sixty-five percent on their distribution network and maybe forty on their suppliers. It wasn’t enough to go to war on - she wanted to bag whole lot, make the whole network start from scratch, and starting the shooting early would spook too many people - set them running to their boltholes to wait out the trouble.

Then some stupid Serbian kid pumped high on his own smack had pulled a gun on ‘Billy’ and the tough little bastard had blown him full of holes in front of God and everybody. The Serb’s cousins had gone to Papa Crispos, who had called up his troops, and within three nights there were twenty more dead bodies in the Bronx and a fair increase in the lead content of the average square foot of air. Not to mention the three civilians they’d popped with stray shots.

Recon was over, and it was a damn good thing she hadn’t waited on planning for the Uzbeks until she was done with the Serbs. Time was going to be tight, and she wanted to make her message heard.

The crack house on Seventeenth was one of Karimov’s steadiest earners, and built like a fort. Lee had been planning to try the sewers under the house to see if it’d be amenable to a little Semtex, but apparently Crispos’s people had been doing their homework too. She’d gotten the word the night before from one of her drinking buddies who hadn’t gotten shot, looking for something a little extra to bring to the big firefight, and she’d arranged to be in position on the roof across the street and three buildings down just before sunset. Plenty of time - the ball hadn’t even opened by the time she got there.

They came in booming, four big cars and a Hummer, like they thought they were back in Serbia where you wanted the locals to hear you coming and panic. Amateurs. They stepped out of their cars into an open field of fire, and the Uzbeks in the house laid it on thick - not just pistols and submachineguns, either, but the sharper rock and roll of automatic rifle fire. AK-47s, from the sound of it - probably ex-Soviet, brought over with them for when they wanted to go to war again. The street filled up with lead and a half-dozen dead or wounded Serbs - she’d counted twenty-four clearing the cars, most of them packing shotguns and Uzis, and she wondered if the dumb fucks had even thought through how they were going to charge a steel-braced door and get it open in the face of sustained rifle fire, especially with a quarter of them already in various stages of bleeding out. Then one of them came up over the side of the Hummer with something long and ugly over his shoulder, and she barely had time to shield her eyes before the RPG punched a HE rocket into the front of the house at 294 meters per second. The steel door blew out in to the street, the lower floor gaping like the empty jaw of a skull, and flames washed back out of the interior as the drugs inside caught and burned.

Fucking morons. If you just wanted to blow it, one man up the street with that weapon could have done that and run without anyone catching sight of them. Still, if there’s any civies left on the street, they just ran like hell. Lee wiped her eyes, shaking away the ringing in her ears, and checked her scope. The Uzbeks on the other floors had fallen silent, stunned by the blast or maybe considering how to get the hell out before they cooked alive, and the Serbs were pumping automatic fire into the upper floor with the zeal of men who figured that if three bullets were good, thirty were better. If this was a show of force, and it probably was, they were making their point.

Lee’s lips peeled back across her teeth. They aren’t the only ones who came prepared to do that, are they?

She’d had time to set up properly, even if it had only been twenty minutes, and she’d had the wide-view spotter’s scope up against her eye for the last three. Range, windage, elevation - all accounted for. She rolled right, settling in behind the big rifle - four feet and nine inches, thirty two pounds of precision-crafted metal: the Barrett “Light 50” was an old friend, the scope already zeroed for the absurdly short range, and she put the first .50 caliber Mk. 211 explosive/incendiary shell into the Hummer right at the line of the fuel tank. It blew like a firecracker - full tank, from the look of it - and what was left of the sides whipped through the cluster of cars like a buzz saw. She put another into the car that’d parked a bit out of range, shredding the engine block and blowing the front end to tatters, then rolled again. A weak spatter of automatic fire tore up the roof she’d just vacated, missing the ‘fifty now that her absence had let it slide back into the hide, and she grabbed the suppressed Remington 700 and lifted it into her shoulder as her eye settled against the scope. She gave herself a full three seconds to breathe and get oriented, then got to work. It would have been easier with a spotter, but at this range she could do her own target selection just by clearing the scope for a few seconds at a time. Besides, the handful of unwounded survivors in the street would only be a threat if she gave them time to get organized. She didn’t.

By the time the men inside the building realized enough of the shooting had stopped to make a run for the side door, she was already sighted in.

She killed three of them before their feet hit the pavement, and a fourth when he hesitated in the doorway. The flat thump of the Claymore she’d concealed against the back step discouraged them from trying that exit about forty seconds later, which left the window on the left side of the house if they weren’t smart enough to realize that the Claymore had been a one-shot. They weren’t. She let the survivors - five of them, in all - pile out the window before she took her first shot. The first out had already made the fence and was half-over it into the neighboring yard, looking to get as far from the raging hell of burning gasoline and bodies out front as he could.

She blew his head off with the shot she’d been holding, then did the four still getting their feet under them in the yard.


There were sirens in the distance, but she had plenty of time. Police response in this neighborhood ran close to twenty minutes, and the whole miserable bit of street theatre she’d just put an end to had lasted less than seven. She shouldered the Remington, cased the scope, then started breaking down the ‘fifty. She could have gone down there with her pistol and checked for survivors, but it wasn’t that kind of engagement. Nothing moved on the street except the flickers of fire, and anyone too wounded to move the police were welcome to. Let them tell their friends; she had a full night’s work ahead of her, and she was just getting started.

By the time the police turned up, she was long gone and the crack house had almost burned out. In spite of everything, it was still standing. “Hell of a thing”, the officers on scene said to each other. They tried not to look at the ruin in the street. “Hell of a thing.”

***************

Badge 5541, as it turned out, belonged to Detective Second Class Peter Swierczynski. When Lilian had called in for him around 3 pm, she’d been told he was at lunch and would she like to leave a message. It was a good sign - the best New York cops were practically nocturnal, and Swierczynski showed every sign of keeping that kind of schedule. She got a tentative appointment for 7 pm, was most of the way to Brooklyn when her phone had gone off with a fresh message from the department secretary - Swierczynski had cleared out for a crime scene, would probably be at it all night, and would she like to try again later?

She had no desire to wait, and after a few stiff words with the secretary and even more driving, she pulled her Bureau-issue SUV in next to the unmarked NYPD car that was racked in behind the black-and-whites instead.   Looks more like Baghdad than the Big Apple here... which means Punisher.  I’m not far behind her, in one way, except that I’ve still got a city of eight million possibilities.  Locking the car, she stepped over the yellow tape, flashing her Bureau ID at the beat cop who tried to wave her away.  “FBI.  Here on business... where’s Swierczynski?”

“Shit. What the hell do you want to talk to Swiss for?” The cop looked her over, disgusted and still a little pale around the edges. “More of his Punisher bullshit? If he’s got the Bureau pissing on our jurisdiction again, the Captain’s gonna have his ass.”

“Rule 3: The Bureau pisses where it wants, and nothing anybody does can influence it one way or the other.  Now, where’s Swierczynski?”  Lilian turned toward the building.   Blown the hell up... that’s not supposed to happen.

“Fuck,” the officer opined, then jerked his hand toward the charred ruin of what might have been three or four cars before they’d been reduced to half-melted, shattered debris. “He was over there with what’s left of most of the bodies, but last I saw him he was headed for the side of the house. Fuck knows why.”

“Because he knows what he’ll find there.”   And I know what he found there.  Lilian stepped past the officer, making her way to the side of the building.

Peter Swierczynski, it turned out, was short. Barely five foot eight, in fact, which made him a good three inches shorter than Lee and not a whole lot more than that taller than Lilian. He was also, as the saying went, natty. His suit was expensive - custom tailored - and his hair was a soft golden brown that he wore looser around his neck than she’d have expected on this coast. Everything about him, from the long slim-fingered hands to the soft green eyes he was currently reserving for the four bodies laid out in front of him, said exactly one thing to a San Francisco girl. The way he was coolly crouching in grass that was soaked with blood and brains, fishing in the dirt with a pencil, told a lifelong FBI agent something else entirely.

“This where they fell?”  Lilian dropped to one knee next to him, her eyes moving over the corpses.  

“Best I can tell. Sure looks like nobody moved them. The fire came damn near to cooking them, but it must have run out of smack before they dried out enough to catch.” He didn’t look up from the bodies, but his tone was guarded. “You’re not from the Detective Bureau - they already passed this one down to the local house. Not a reporter, or the black-and-whites would have bounced you. Mayor’s office? ATF?”

“Bureau.”  Lilian lifted her ID.  “You’re a hard man to get a meeting with, Detective... even for the federal agent assigned to update the Punisher file.  The Director wants a serious file with real data, in case the order comes to bring her down.”

“Her.” He paused, pencil suddenly forgotten, and even if he didn’t look up she could feel the intensity of his interest. “Frank Castle is male. No current law enforcement theory of which I’m aware speculates that his... associate … is anything other than male. So either you’re stupider than the last four lads they put on the Punisher file - which would be a minor miracle - or you know something I don’t. What’s the deal?”

“Met her.  She shot the fuck out of some very bad people who wanted to do some very bad things, and I was after the same people.  You spend as much time chasing the girls as I do, you know a woman’s voice when you hear it.  As for the rest... Bureau’s currently only interested in building a file.  You manage to get her in a corner with enough evidence to lay charges, she’s all yours.  Though I’d like to share intel as much as possible... might keep a few good people alive.”

“Department’s never been interested in building a Punisher case. Not since Martin Soap and the poor bastard they never found all the bits of in Serbia. If you’ve had even half a look at the file, you know that.” He went back to stirring the grass with the pencil, almost absently. “Why me, Agent...?”

“Stanfield.  Lilian Stanfield.  Because I had some photos with your badge number on them... a disproportionate number, actually.  That the boy in blue on the way in who thought you were a Punisher-chasing kook pretty much sealed the deal, though.”

“Yeah, I guess that’s about right.” The pencil stopped suddenly, and Swierczynski took a plastic glove out of his pocket before using a pair of tweezers to lift a tiny dark object out of the ground and into a small plastic bag. When he stood and tucked it into his free hand, she could see it was a slug. He peeled off the glove, dropping it and the pencil into another, larger bag, then sealed them both together. Then he turned and looked at her for the first time, and she got a really good look at the lines that were etched at the corners of his eyes.

Peter Swierczynski, as another and older saying went, had seen the elephant.

“Tell me what you see.” He jerked his head toward the bodies at their feet, then back toward the street.

“Execution.  That’s what I see.”  Lilian looked over the scene as a whole.  “They were running... herded out, most likely, and when they got out the door there was a sniper waiting to take them.  The ones after the first saw the first go down, knew they didn’t have anywhere to go to be safe, kept running anyway because what the hell else are they going to do, and she put them down at her leisure.”

“Too close together for that. See how clumped up they are?” He pointed down at the half-circle of bodies, shaking his head. “She dropped all four of them in … oh, I’d say six seconds or less. With a high-powered rifle - probably from across the street, where we found the blind. Sandbags, local debris.”

“Damn.  If we do get called on to take her down, we’re going to need Sherlock Holmes, Ben Ulrich, the entire state National Guard, and the personal armories of Reed Richards and Tony Stark to have a chance.  Because if she decides to put up a fight...”  Lilian shook her head at the thought.

“As far as we know, Punisher’s never shot a cop or a civilian. We’re less sure about the costume crowd, but we’re pretty sure Castle’s never clocked any kills there. No word about the new … girl, either.” Peter started back toward the street, talking as he walked. “We’re pretty sure the … attackers, for want of a better word, were the ones who opened the house up like a tin can. We found a damaged RPG-7 mixed in with what was left of the bodies. Want to guess what happened to all the ones we aren’t pretty sure were killed in the blast or wounded too bad to move?”

“Blown up with whatever gas tank went off out front, or shot in the head?”  Lilian looked toward the front of the house.   Damn, this place had it rough.

“Two for two, Agent Stanfield. There wasn’t a lot left, but my instincts is the ballistics will check out as the same rifle. He... excuse me, she didn’t even come down to do the honors in person. All rifle work, except for the three at the back door.”

“Any idea how she blew whatever went up outside?”  Lilian frowned.  “If she didn’t come down in person... an RPG of her own?”

“Nothing that unsophisticated. See that car up there?” Peter pointed at a heavy Accord with its whole front end blown away. “Not enough damage for an RPG. I’m not expert, but I’ve broken down a fair number of Castle’s crime scenes and I’m guessing that’s a .50 caliber anti-material rifle with explosive or incendiary shells. Big damn rifle... almost as tall as I am. Heavy, too. She had it gone by the time anyone turned up.”

“Goddamn.”  Lilian whistled.  “So she’s ready to fight tanks.  Call off the National Guard, then, we’ll need the Avengers.”

“Probably better not to joke.” He threw her a wry half-smile. “All the ones I’m pegging as her kills were either shrapnel from the dead Humvee or rifle shots, except the back door again. Those are the really scary ones.”

“What happened at the back door?”   I’m not going to want to know what happened at the back door...

“Claymore mine on a tripwire. Which means she somehow got within a foot of the back door, rigged up the mine and the wire, and got back to her hide with nobody noticing. In a short enough span of time that nobody took a walk out the back door before things went to hell. And since she brought the heavy rifle, obviously planned for vehicles....” He trailed off, waiting for her to get it.

“She knew how the whole thing was going to play out.  That the house was getting hit, by who, and how many, and what they were going to do when they hit it.  Which means she had more intel than I’ve ever got going into a fight.”

“Yep. All within what was probably a day of it being laid on - the gangs aren’t here aren’t the patient sort. She’s got them pretty well fucked on intel, and she’s even more of a ghost than Castle ever was.” He shook his head, then straighted up sharply as he caught the cluster of officers around one of the cars. “Something else is on.”

“Well, let’s go find out.”

Chapter Text

Lee lay in the back of the black Hummer and listened to the city burn.

It was damn near six in the morning now, and she’d put in a full night’s work. She’d hit every major supplier and distributor she had a solid location for and picked off a few on the fly, ambushed five roving crews who’d showed up to investigate, and blown enough drugs and weapons to hell tonight to make sure the devil was having one grand motherfucking party. She’d fucked the Uzbeks, plain and simple, and now she had BIlly and his boys hunkered down in one of their favorite houses with their SUV parked out front and their adrenaline through the roof. She’d given them a good spooking - cleaned out their favorite whorehouse ahead of them and given them a couple of Claymores just inside the front door - and they were down two of their number and a half-dozen low-renters who’d been along for the ride. While they were on their way, she’d brushed one of them in the street. Simple tag job. Now he was a walking microphone, piping their panicked bitching into her left ear, and she could hear the catalog of destruction pouring into their cell phones from all over the city on the right. Commercial cellphone encryption was crap - they should have known better, even using burners.

She’d been in the back of the SUV for almost an hour now, listening and waiting. Feeling the bruises under her Kevlar where she’d picked up glancing tags from 9mm rounds the two times she’d had to get up close without the element of surprise. She’d done it Frank’s style, tight bursts stacked on each other so fast it felt like a constant stream of fire - get the ‘run’ on them, he liked to say, and they would shoot their own dicks off before they hit you. Couple of them damn near had shot themselves, several had shot each other, and she figured she was at least three bullets ahead on the night.

‘Course, it only took one to ruin your whole day.

Then the call she wanted came in, and the rush of adrenaline burned off the fatigue in her muscles as a raspy old voice growled in her right ear. “The Punisher, the Serbs - I do not care who it is, Dmitri, they think they can fuck with us. We will kill their wives, we will fuck their daughters, we will hang their fucking sons from the fucking lampposts. I do not give a fuck how they do things in America, these fucking businessmen, but if they think we are weak we will teach them to fear us as our fathers taught the fucking Russians. Your young boys - you will bring everyone you can to the pier, yes? We will meet there, and we will go to war.”

“But, Papa...” Both ears at the same time, and could the boy sound any more like an amped up teenager?

“<I do not ask for discussion! You will do as I say, and we will fucking kill these sons of bitches>!” Old country cursing... good sign. She was getting under the old bastard’s skin. That was good. Let him get good and pissed. She’d blown his supply lines, killed his heavy hitters and shredded his earners in one night, and she’d done it to knock the old man so far into shock he did something exactly this stupid.

“Yes, Papa. All right, I will come.” The connection died, and Billy swore richly in at least three languages. “He is mad. He and his old men, they are all mad. The police, they will swarm us like flies, but he does not care. Fuck.” She heard the ragged tinkling of a glass exploding against the wall, then silence. Smarter than I thought, kid. Maybe too smart. If he starts thinking with his brains and not his balls.... “Fuck. What can I do? He is my father. Get the fucking car.”

There’s my boy.

They came out packing - machine pistols and hanguns, mainly, but she heard at least one shotgun in the mix. She let them come, watching them in the mirror she’d taped above the back right window, and she let Billy pop the locks and the narrow little bastard who usual did the driving actually get into the car before she made her move. She put a bullet in the head of the big man who’d just opened the back door, dropping him and his shotgun to the street, and put a hard shot to the back of the driver’s head with her elbow that bounced him off the steering wheel and sent his gun flying under the seat as she rolled up out of the well between the two rows of seats. The .45 in her right hand, even suppressed, spoke like a dictionary being slammed into the frame of the car - double-tap to the chest and one in the head for the gun on Billy’s right, same again for the one behind them, and she had time for a rush-shot at the guy on the left before any of them even remembered their guns. It blew his throat out, which was a crap shot but good enough, and she rolled out using the door as cover to nail the last bodyguard who was waiting with his gun out for her head to clear the top of the door. He didn’t even come close to getting the gun down in time. Dmitri Karimov, his father’s pride and joy, never even got his Glock 18 out of the holster - he took one look at her eyes, at the barrel of the .45 pointed at his head, and showed exactly how smart - or stupid - he was. “What you want?”

“You are going to meet your father.” She rolled to her feet, shifting to cover him and the driver in the same field of fire. “You will take me with you, or I will shoot you in both knees. You will never walk again. If you still will not take me, I will shoot you in the head and your man will take me. Do you understand?”

He understood.

“Then get in the fucking car, Billy, and let’s go for a ride.”

*****************

“Jesus,” Peter Swierczynski observed as he studied the map spread out on the hood of one of the black-and-whites, “I thought the month had been a little too quiet, but... Jesus.”

“Fuck.”   Mild curses just won’t do tonight.  “Looks like she’s everywhere in the city at once.  We’re going to have to wait ‘till afternoon to get times of death and trace her steps... but fuck.  That’s both the new gangs, dead, isn’t it?”

“The Uzbeks and the Serbs, yeah. Mostly the Uzbeks... if I’m reading this right, she’s shot, stabbed or blown up their whole damn organization in one night. People who ship them product, people who lend them muscle, people who owe them fucking money... everybody. It’s like the Night of the God-damn Long Knives out there. She didn’t get quite as much of the Serbs... at least, I don’t think she did. Our organized crime files on these people are shit - from what I could get from my friends over there, they didn’t even know most of these places were mobbed up.” Peter ran a hand through his hair and checked his watch, swearing too softly under his breath for her to hear the words. The tone was clear enough. “What time’s dawn?”

“6:30 or so.”  Lilian sighed.  “How long does that give us for her to polish the Serbs off too, if she’s planning on doing that before the sun goes up?”

“Less than twenty minutes.” He glanced up at her, and there was a hollow sort of camaraderie in his smile. “Unless she’s rigged them all up with C-4 and timers, I think she’s about done for the night. Even more than Castle, she’s never voluntarily operated during daylight - at least that I’m aware of.”

“Then I get the feeling we’re going to want to grab rather a lot of sleep today.”  Lilian stretched, an arm behind her head.  “Because today, the forensics people are going to be doing their work, and tonight, she’ll likely be finishing hers.”

He straightened up and raked a hand through the untidy strands of his hair, stretching his shoulders and wincing a little. “I’m wired on caffeine and starving. You want to buy me breakfast, I wouldn’t complain.”

“You think the Feds pay any better than the city?”  Lilian winked.  “Come on... coffee and donuts and eggs sound good?”

“Good enough to be going on with.” He gave her a crooked half-smile and started walking for his car, then seemed to change his mind. “You drive, I’ll answer questions. Fair?”

“Perfect.”  Lilian gestured toward the SUV.  “Plus, the Bureau does provide more comfortable rides.”

“So I see. Lucky for you.” He hauled himself into the passenger seat and slumped against the door once he closed it like a man twice his age. “Jesus. I’m starting to think your girl scares me worse than Castle ever did, Lilian.”

“And just think... she hasn’t had a gun to the back of your head.  Hint for your heart: Don’t go out of your way to get her attention.”  Lilian started the car.  “I need info on both of them... I’ve got a lot of cases to sort between them, and the Bureau wants psych profiles on them both.”

“You ask, I’ll answer. I’m too shattered for a damn briefing.” He leaned back and half-closed his eyes, but she could feel the mind behind them shifting restlessly around the narrow space of the cab. If she’d learned anything about him in the last eleven hours, she’d learned that underestimating Peter’s brains or his guts was a serious mistake that most of the people around him insisted on making.

“Okay, first question... say I come by some time this week when she’s let us both get some sleep with a pile of case files.  You think you might be in the mood to help me sort which one’s who?”

“Sure. Though it isn’t too hard - well, not mostly. It’s not just the weapon break-down that’s telling. It’s the pattern.” His hand rose and traced the air absently, as if brushing at some invisible spiderweb. “Castle’s a classic hunter - thrashes the underbrush ‘til the big game bolts, then takes it out when it tries to get rid of him. Maximum application of firepower - very Vietnam, which figures because he did four tours there before he came back to the World. You notice the weapon he’s racked up the most kills on?”

“Machine guns.  I’m not exactly an expert on military weapons... it’s not usually a requirement in my line of work.  But he’s a fan of fully automatic rifles.”

“His favorite’s the M-60. Big Vietnam-era brute of a machine gun. Kinda like the Squad Automatic Weapons the army’s using now - if you weren’t a gorilla like Castle, no way you could fire it from the shoulder. Chews off five or six hundred rounds a minute. That’s what he used to do the Cesare family - whole mafia family gathered up for a holiday party. He got himself set and let the men come at him, then hosed them down. They never stood a chance - he blew away every damn one of them. That was Castle at his purest - stand tall and burn off rounds into the enemy until they drop, and dig the bullets out of himself afterward. You ever hear about Firebase Valley Forge?”

“Yeah... found it while reading through Castle’s bio.”   Twenty-four Viet Cong beaten to death with a machine gun, after Captain Frank Castle burned the barrel killing their companions.  Seven rounds in Castle and he didn’t go down until the Cong were all dead and the relief loaded him into the chopper the next morning.  He was the only survivor.  “Hell of a work.”

“Toughest man I’ve ever met.” Peter shivered, and there was something strange in his face. Something that might have been horror, or lust, or something in between. “Had a voice like listening to something from the primal past - some kind of giant tiger, maybe, or something straight out of hell. I don’t think I’ve ever heard or seen anything that scared me worse, and I’ve been doing this job a long time. Your girl, though.... she’s a whole other animal. Like what she did tonight.”

“She’s a surgeon.  A... murder-surgeon.  And a detective.  And a hell of a lot of other things, all quite capable of keeping me up at night.  When’s the first hit you’re sure was her?”

“Sure? Really sure? Two years ago, give or take. Theory?” He shook his head. “A bit less than three years back. April. Pack of drug-runners up in Yonkers, real hard-ass black and Asian crew. Word on the street was that the Punisher - Castle for sure, back them - had done their boss and they were looking for revenge. Had one survivor - he was a driver - swear up and down that they’d boxed him into a alley in the port district with a fistful of bullets in him. None of them walked out of there alive. Sounds like a classic Castle case, right? That’s what I thought at the time, anyway. Thing is, about a year ago I pulled the forensics for another look and realized what it was that hadn’t sat right with me the first time.

“The guys in the alley? All headshots. With something a lot heavier than a pistol, and definitely not a shotgun. Two of them in the back of the head, from what the forensics people said looked like a pretty extreme down-angle.”

“Sounds like her.  Almost certainly her.”  Lilian turned the SUV around a corner.  “I’m not going in circles here, am I?  Sort of new in town.  Anyway... they worked that one together, then?”

“Almost certainly, at least in my book. There’s a few others around that time I think might have been theirs, too - nothing I can pin to it, you understand, but my gut says they were Punisher shoots even though they involved multiple shooters. Those are still in the unsolved files at Central, probably not in your file. I’ll see about getting you copies. Then, about two years ago, some punks down in Mexico start having real problems. The lethal kind, shot full of holes and left for the crows, you know? Then Panama. Then Columbia. About the same time, the whole MO of the Punisher changes. No more pumping crowds of bad guys full of automatic fire. Lots more bodies with holes in their heads - plenty of pistol work. Nobody gives a shit, of course, but it starts standing out to me. Then the cape crowd starts buzzing about a new Punisher and... well... two and two start looking a lot like four.”

“So Castle’s out of the country now, hunting Latin America and taking his brand of justice to places where there’s no law.”  Lilian shrugged.  “At least he might be a positive influence, some of those places.  And we’re back down to one Punisher, which suits me just fine.”

“Mostly. Sometimes, I hear about a job in LA or Chicago or Miami that has the whiff of Castle about it. Even a couple of cases here, last year. But my instinct is that he’s decided to go back to the jungle. Hell, he’s got to be over sixty by now - maybe it’s his idea of retirement.”

“Damn... sixty-year-old Punisher.”  Lilian let out a long sigh.  “I hope I’m in good enough shape at sixty to take on the entire criminal element single-handedly.”

“You wish.” Peter crooked a grin at her that was anything but sympathetic. “I’m pushing two thirds of that, though you wouldn’t guess it with my boyish good looks, and I can tell you that life does not begin at forty.”

“Shatter all my dreams, won’t you?”  Lilian laughed softly.  “So... we’ve got her basic MO down.  What can you tell me about her as a person?”

“Twelve hours ago, I couldn’t have told you what kind of plumbing she has. You’re one-up on me there. What’ve you got - a theory? An idea?”

“A wild guess.  A lot of vagaries.  I’m trying to assemble a psych profile, both to help any future teams that get after her and to narrow down who she is... it’s not easy.”

He laughed softly. “Give, Agent. This’ll go a lot faster if you tell me what you’ve got and I fill in the holes for you. I’m not your boss - I’m not going to ream your ass if you get it wrong. Oh, and pull in here, this’ll do fine.”

“Angry.  Disillusioned with conventional justice.  Uninterested in second chances.  Best-trained death machine this side of Doom.  Suicidal, confident to the point of madness, or both.  I lean toward the first.  Antisocial, probably to the point of personality disorder.  Brilliant.  Wealthy.  No social life and hardly any work life.  Without doubt of her own righteousness.  That’s what I’ve got.”

“Not bad. Couple of glaring flaws.” Peter climbed out of the car and stretched his shoulders, waiting for her to come around the hood, then started up the street toward the diner he’d pointed out from the road. “She doesn’t have to be wealthy, at least not to start - she can liberate funds from her targets, and I’ve zero doubt that Castle left her a substantial fortune in numbered accounts from doing the exact same thing. She’s not suicidal - nobody with a death wish survives doing what she’s doing. She is committed to the mission, and willing to risk her life for it, but she’ll survive as long as she possibly can to keep carrying out that mission. Don’t underestimate her ability to network - Castle worked alone, but he had a range of contacts that would put you and me to shame. He’ll have passed them to her, and she’ll have been building her own. Plus there’s the two big, million-dollar questions.” The bell on the door jangled as he walked in, and he picked a booth and slid into it with the familiarity of a regular.

“And what are those?”  Lilian slid into the booth opposite Peter.

“In both cases, why. First off, why is she doing it? She picked the mission for a reason. What is it?” He smiled up at the waitress, an older woman, and winked cheerfully. “Don’t worry, Linda, I’ve brought you someone more likely to fall for your charms tonight. Meet Lilian Stanfield. I’ll be having the house burger, and lay it on thick, would you? I’ve had a long night.”

“Omlet, lots of cheese.”  Lilian smiled to the waitress.  “And enough coffee to wake the dead.”  She turned back to Peter.  “That would be the anger, wouldn’t it?  Something happened to make her want those who profit from harm to others punished, and to convince her people like us couldn’t make that happen.”

“You read about what happened with Castle’s wife and kids in Central Park, right?” He waited for her nod, then went on with a little grimace. “Horrible fucking thing. It didn’t make him - I figure it was in him already, maybe, or he learned to live that way in the war and never let it go. Either way, though, what happened to his family wrecked him. He was a soldier, so he gave himself a mission, and he’s stuck to it for thirty years. If she’s living up to his footsteps, she’s just as committed. So what happened to her?”

“Something equally bad... it would have to be.  And equally violent.  And equally random.  Part of it is the utter stripping of security, isn’t it?  Taking a place and a lifestyle that are supposed to be safe and ripping the safety out of them, along with ripping out every reason to keep living the way the world wants you to.”  Lilian reached instinctively for the coffee Linda returned with.

“Never thought of it that way, exactly, but that sounds about right.” Peter sipped his water and leaned back, resting his head on the cushioned back of the booth. “That’ll help when you have a list of suspects - go looking for the trauma victims. The one that’s going to help you make the list, and this one’s a doozy, is the one I’ve been trying to figure out for the last two years. Why him - or now that you’ve sorted me out, why her?”

“Yeah... that one’s baffling me too.  I mean... he’s running out of years, so he’d need a replacement if he wanted his work to keep getting done.  But why this woman, out of everyone in the world?  My best guess is she reminds him of a younger him.”

“So what do we know about Frank Castle?” He leaned forward, eyes suddenly intent, and she could hear his brain clicking. “Born 1950, urban New York upbringing, Catholic schools, Italian family, four tours in Vietnam - at least one of them doing black-ops special operations shit that we never could get a word about from the government - and he leaves the Marines as a Captain. Married, two kids, they get gunned down in front of him in Central Park by a mafia hit - wrong place, wrong time. He spends a month or so in the hospital recovering, and then he gets to work. So where’s the connection?”

“She’s almost certainly a  soldier, with combat experience.  Probably Special Ops... her weapons and tactics all point to that.  I’d say Iraq... the parallels between that and Vietnam are so notable even the media’s caught on.  Could be Afghanistan or one of the little wars of the last two decades, though, or more than one of that bunch.  And we’ve already established there’s probably a violent, random tragedy.  How many ex-Special Forces people get dragged into random violence at home?”

“More than you’d think, maybe, but you missed the kicker. The big, solid piece of the puzzle you brought to the table. She, remember? You have any idea how god-damn impossible it is to make Special Forces for a woman?” He rapped his fingers on the table. “Not just Special Forces, either - combat infantry. Sniper training. You have to move mountains to get that gig if you’re a woman today, much less ten or twenty years ago. So your suspect list just got a hell of a lot shorter, if you can convince the Pentagon to cough up the personnel files.”

“I saved the President.  I think that gets me access.”  Lilian winked.  “I’ll dig through them and share what I can from them with you.”

“You’re a godsend. Get me a short list, and I’ll run it against violent crimes in the New York area in the last five years. I can’t imagine that if she was that eaten up about it, she was sitting on her hands for all that long.”

“And hopefully we’ll come back with one name, walk into a house, and find an anti-tank rifle sitting on the mantle.  Make life easy on everybody.”  Lilian took a large bite of her omlet.  “Hopefully.”

***************************

It was daylight by the time they hit the docks, which Lee would have paid good money to avoid, but she was pushing her luck for a result and knew it. She was tucked into the back of the SUV, well clear of the windows, and had her pistol visible in the rear-view mirror just to be sure the driver didn’t get any ideas. ‘Billy,’ from the look of him, was too busy pissing himself for anything like that. Big men, tough men, the kind who thought they could take anything, they were the ones who cracked when you made them helpless and kept them that way. She was more worried about the sharp little bastard in the driver’s seat. He had the kind of narrow, hard-used face that suggested he might just take a chance if he saw one out of pure stubborn hate.

The cluster of men framed against the sun-bleached dock were old. She didn’t let that inspire contempt - they were old like Frank was old, old like tough shoe leather. They had done everything there was to do and come back for more, and they were tougher and more vicious than their American-acculturated children could have hoped to be. They were also armed to the teeth - AK-47s, mostly, though she saw at least one grenade launcher and a shotgun in the mix. Fourteen in all. One of them was Old Man Karimov, but she didn’t know him by sight, so she’d have to kill them all. That was just fine with her.

Doing it was going to be harder than thinking it.

The SUV stopped ten yards down and pulled in, resting up against the curb, and five things happened in the same breath. Most of the old men turned to look toward the sound on natural reflex, Lee flicked the safety off her first grenade, Dmitri went for the door, the driver went for the gun under the dash, and Lee shot him in the skull with the .45 in her left hand from less than six inches away. The bullet blew through his skull and spattered him across the suddenly splintered windshield, she threw the grenade side-arm across the back seat and past Dmitri’s head, and then threw herself face-flat on the back seat of the SUV with her hands over her ears.

Thunder shattered the windshield, and she thought she heard the distant echo of a man’s scream through the sudden ringing in her ears. She was already coming up, twisting through the left rear door of the SUV and rolling onto her knees, and by the time she’d finished straightening up the M67 in her right hand was already off safe and in the air. She threw herself flat again, putting the body of the SUV between her and the explosion; she could hear the flat boom of the charge and the whistle and thock of the shrapnel through the ringing in her ears, and she gave it a full three second count before she rolled back onto her feet and started running.

Most of them were on the ground already - the lethal burst range of a ‘67 was officially five meters, and none of them had been further than two from the mid-air detonation she’d timed out. Only the body armor that most of them were wearing had saved any of them from the resulting hail of lethal metal fragments, and the double impact of the flashbang and the grenade’s detonation had stunned the ones who weren’t already dead or dying. One of them was on his knees, clawing for his rifle, and she gave him a tight three-round burst from the suppressed FN 90 combat-strapped across her chest. Two in the head, one off target, and he dropped like the dead weight he was. Then she was on top of them, their blood on her boots, and she put a burst into any of them that still showed signs of breath or movement while she worked methodically through the apparently dead and put two bullets into the skulls of each of them. The snake-eaters in Delta had taught her to double-check her kills, and Frank had driven the lesson home every chance he got. When she was sure, she started back toward the SUV at a walk.

Dmitri was still there, clutching his eyes. The flashbang’s 4.5 grams of magnesium had detonated barely a foot in front of his nose, searing his optic nerves and burning the skin off his face, and he was probably looking at serious permanent hearing loss in the long term.

He wasn’t going to get a long term.

She kicked him in the guts, which dragged his hands away from his face, then dug the toe of her boot into his chest to force the rest of the air out of him. His hands lashed at the hard structure of the boot, trying for a grip, and she didn’t give him the chance to work up to anything more coherent. What she did give him was four shots in the head at point-blank range, which put an end to his mewling.

She left the gang’s guns in the SUV where they were, though she stopped to grab her trenchcoat out of the back, and the combat strap settled the FN-90 comfortably against the armor under the white-painted symbol and the blood on her chest. It was short work to peel open the gas cap and shove a bloody rag from Dmitri’s shirt into it, and she made sure it had a good light before she pulled the trenchcoat tight around her shoulders and started the walk for her nearest safehouse. It took about five minutes before the distinctive whumpf of the tank going up caught up to her, and by the time she was already well in among the warehouses. Let ‘em take forensics off that, she breathed out into the fresh sunrise, and then then she put it out of her mind. Sleep would come next, and then another night’s work to clean up what she could of the Serbs before they finished crawling under their rock. It wasn’t perfect, but if wars only consisted of perfect ops then they’d be over a fuck of a lot faster. On the whole, she mused, I think it’ll do for a welcome back party.

Her laugh was a fleeting shadow in the sun.

Chapter Text

“I’m home.”  Lilian’s voice betrayed her exhaustion more thoroughly than Benedict Arnold could have dreamed of betraying anything, and her balance lasted exactly long enough to get her to the sofa.   I smell cooking... she’s home.  First good news all day.  “What’s in the oven?”

“Ribs and mashed potatoes. Mix of vegetables in peanut oil on the stove - mostly fresh green beans.” Lee was wearing an apron over jeans and a T-shirt, and she leaned out of the kitchen to give the smaller woman a half-amused glance before vanishing back into the midst of her work. “You want a beer? You look like someone dragged you behind a truck.”

“God, you’re gorgeous, and way too good for me.  Yeah, a beer would be great.”  Lilian managed a small smile.  “Tell me your work day went better than mine.”

“Can’t say for sure, but you sure as hell look like yours was worse.” Lee reappeared, open bottle of chilled beer in hand, and pressed it into Lilian’s hand with a light squeeze on her shoulder before returning to the kitchen. “Want to talk about it?”

“What’s not classified was probably on the news.  Punisher’s spent the last two nights on a violent rampage... city’s murder rate just tripled.”

“I saw that. Sounds like it was messy. Fallujah on the nightly news.” Pans clattered softly in the kitchen, then plates. “You stayed safe?”

“Yeah, I was never anywhere near the violence when it was happening... probably good for me, but if I’d been able to watch some of it through binoculars I might have learned something useful.”  Lilian took a long swig of her beer.

“Did you learn anything anyway?”

“A lot...”  Lilian tilted her head back to watch Lee through the kitchen archway.  “She has an anti-vehicle rifle.”

“Damn. Those things are no joke. .50 caliber?”

“Yeah.  Blew up a Hummer with the damned thing.  Also, mines, and grenades, and flashbangs.  She likes to do her work at a distance, but closes if she has to.  And she’s all planning... by the time she’s in danger, she’s already won.”

“‘Victorious warriors win first and then go to war. Defeated warriors go to war and then seek to win.’” Lee carries two fully-loaded plates out to the table, settling them, then setting the table with silverware, condiments and a bottle of wine.

“That Sun Tzu?”  Lilian pushed herself to her feet, walking to the table and rising to her toes for a kiss.

“It is.” Lee returned the kiss lightly, almost chastely, and gently squeezed Lee’s shoulder. “Sit down and eat before it gets cold.”

“Aye aye.”  Lilian took her seat, reaching for her fork.  “I’ve got a way to narrow down who she is.”

“Oh?” Lee arched an inquiring eyebrow as she poured the wine, then peeled off her apron and settled down to eat.

Lilian nodded.  “Cross-referencing a few lists... I’m still gathering the information to assemble them.  But I should be able to narrow down the number of possible suspects from about 9 million to about ten or twenty.  Which... big difference.”

“Lord, that’s one hell of a trick. How’d you pull that off?” Lee sipped her wine, controlling the reflexive shaking in her hands, and made herself smile. Focus. Don’t react, just listen.

“She’s female, she has specific pieces of training, and she has a reason to do what she’s doing.”  Lilian took a bite of her food.  “Three traits, all of which can be checked against public record, each of which eliminates a vast percentage of those with the other two.”

Shit. Lee felt her breath try to freeze in her throat, and covered by focusing on cutting the meat from the bone of her ribs. If she’s got the parameters right... fuck. “Sounds like you’re making progress, then. Good work, Agent Lil.”

“My work’s not done yet.  Even knowing who she is only helps so much.”  Lilian sipped her wine.  “There’s the matter of assembling the rest of the file... making sure anyone ordered to bring her down knows everything there is to know about her.”

“Figure she’s probably living underground? In hiding or something?”

“No idea.  For all I know, she could have a comfy place in the Boston suburbs... but I doubt it.”

“Mister Punisher, Mrs Punisher and the Punisherettes?” It hurt to make the joke - God, it hurt - but she made herself smile around it.

“Could be.”  Lilian reached for Lee’s hand, squeezing tightly.  “With any luck, I should be off the Punisher case soon and assembling a file on Squirrel Girl.”

“Didn’t she beat down Doctor Doom once?”

“Yeah, but I’m not Doctor Doom.”  Lilian smiled softly.  “So that one should be safe.”

“Maybe you are Doctor Doom, and this FBI thing is just a cover.” Lee was sliding back into being Cecilee now, the busy widow doubling as her friend’s housewife, and she let it roll over her like a relief. The role was armor of a sort, and she needed that. “Now that I really look, I see a certain resemblance. Mostly vertical, and in the megalomaniacal glint in the eye.”

“Wicked woman.”  Lilian leaned back to continue eating her food.  “This is really excellent.”

“Only the best for you, Lil,” she said, and was surprised to find she meant it.

“We haven’t seen much of each other the last few nights... work’s kept me out of the house pretty much the whole time you’ve been awake.  But the rest of my evening’s free...”

“Yes,” Cecilee smiled with just the edge of tears in her eyes, “I think we could do that.”

“I was hoping so.”  Lilian finished her wine, her eyes meeting Cecilee’s. Their hands wound together for a lingering moment, then separated with a reluctant brush of fingertips.

They didn’t talk any more about work that night.

Chapter Text

“File for you, Agent.”  One of the Bureau’s gophers dropped a small manilla envelope on Lilian’s desk, then vanished from her office.

And here it is.  Lilian took the envelope, removed a CD-ROM from it, and slid it into her PC’s drive. Three possibles and one probable, vetted by Swierczynski, organized by his best guess as to which would make the best suspect.

A few moments later, she was looking at a short, encrypted Office document - a single case file, from three years before.

Cecilee Spencer, retired Marine Recon, expert certification in marksmanship and heavy munitions, had lost her husband to an act of random violence in Central Park.

No.   Lilian stared at the photo included with the document - Cecilee and David, smiling happily at a camera.   No.  Not her.  It can’t be her... it can’t.

And yet everything matched.   Master-rated in rifles, assault rifles, pistols, submachine guns, sniper-trained, polylingual.  Husband killed by chance in an act by a gang - wrong place at the wrong time.  The murder was brutal, she was wounded... covered in his blood when she was found, holding him, had to be sedated to be taken to the hospital.  The shooters were never identified or arrested.

“Pat?  Taking my lunch.”  Lilian wasn’t sure when she’d left her desk, and her voice felt like it came from elsewhere, outside her body.  Without waiting for a response, she made her way down to the parking garage, found her vehicle, and drove in silence to the apartment.

She didn’t return to the office that day, and if one of the secretaries hadn’t called her she wouldn’t have been in touch either.  As it was, she mumbled something about field work on the Punisher case and hung up the phone before continuing her search.  Upturned rugs yielded removable floorboards, a search under the sink revealed brackets sized to hold a shotgun, and a search of the master bedroom revealed a pistol and a combat knife set in holsters between the bed and the wall.

Not enough to convict.  Not enough for a DA to even bring charges.  But enough, with the other information Lilian had, to be certain.  When Cecilee returned to the house that evening, Lilian was sitting on the floor of the living room, the rug still piled off in the corner, the floor compartments still open, her knees hugged to her chest.

“Well,” Lee said softly as she took in the state of the front room, “I see you’ve been remodelling.”

“You put a gun to my head.”  Lilian didn’t look up, and her voice was nearly inaudible.

“I think that’s something I would remember, Lil.” Lee kept her voice very level as she crossed the front room and settled into the couch. Her eyes were strange - almost gentle, but with something moving in the depths of them. “What are you talking about?”

“You’re her.”  Lilian shook on the floor, her eyes closing.  “There are no other possibilities, and everything fits.  You put a gun to my head.  You’ve killed more people in New York than... god, I don’t have a metaphor in me right now.  Fuck, Lee, I just want today to be a bad dream.”

“Maybe it is.” Lee laughed a little, tight and strange. “So you think that I’m a lunatic who spends her time starting firefights with drug dealers and murderers, and you’ve decided this because I have storage under my floors?”

“You know I’m not an idiot.  Though I suppose I haven’t shown many signs of that these last few weeks...”  Lilian sighed.  “The training.  The trauma.  In combination with the gender... there’s only one person in the greater New York area who matches... and the match is perfect.  Everything fits.  Wouldn’t take it to the DA, but it’s enough to be sure.”  Lilian’s arms tightened around her legs.  “Fuck if I didn’t try not to believe it.  I still don’t want to.  But it’s the truth.”

“I was a soldier, Lil.” Lee’s voice was very quiet now, and full of pain. “I served my country to the best of my ability, which was pretty damn good. You know all of that - John was my Captain, Lil, what did you think we were doing out there? Then I came home. You know what happened …” her voice almost broke, but she forced through it. “You’ve always known what happened to David. What happened to me. So why now?”

“Because I didn’t want to see it.  The pattern...”  Lilian finally lifted her head.  “It took having it pointed out to me before I could let myself see it.  It took being forced.  Because I didn’t want to believe...”  Lilian looked up at Lee.  “And now I have seen it and I can’t forget it and I don’t have a fucking clue what to do next.”

Lee read her eyes, read the certainty there, and felt her shoulders try to slump and wetness spill over her eyes. She refused to close them, elbows bracing on her knees to keep her shoulders square, and breathed through the pain. That was how the Corps had taught her to survive, how Frank had taught her - breathe through the pain and keep moving, because if you stop you’re dead. “You’re that sure I’m the Punisher.” It didn’t sound like a question.

“Certain.”  Lilian lowered her eyes.  “Damn, I wish I wasn’t.”

“Then I think you’d better ask your questions, Agent Stanfield, because you may not get another chance.” Lee’s voice changed, and yet it didn’t - same warmth, the same fondness, the same smooth Southern drawl, but it was like the bottom had dropped away from the pain and she could see it went on and on and on forever; cold and dark and seethingly alive.

“The guns... where are they?  How many?”  Lilian’s voice shook.

“That’s a terrible question, Agent Stanfield. First, because you know I’m not going to break OpSec to tell you. Second, because even if I did you could raid them all and I’d be back to work in a month. Third, because it’s not really what you want to know. Try again.”

“What’s the objective?  What’s the victory condition?”

“They don’t walk away. All the pain and the hurt and the death they’ve caused - they don’t live to profit from it. Someone punishes them. That’s the objective. That’s the point.” Lee murmured it softly, almost gently, though there was fire in her eyes when the words passed her lips.

“Does it end?”  Lilian breathed the words almost too quietly to be heard.

“Probably not.” She shrugged, a strangely philosophic gesture. “Frank’s been doing it for damn near forty years now and he hasn’t hit an end yet.”

“They’re going to kill you.  Or the Attorney General’s going to decide you need to be stopped, or Spider-Man’s going to drop a girl off a bridge and the Governor’s going to call in the National Guard to bring down the city’s vigilantes.  It can’t last forever.”

“Nothing lasts forever,” Lee chuckled dryly, her eyes sad and strange. “If we can’t take a joke, we shouldn’t have joined.”

“Do you love me?”  The words were whispered, barely a breath.

“Yes.”

“If you could be talked into stopping, you’d have stopped without being talked to.”  Lilian sighed softly.  “Which leaves me rather trapped, doesn’t it?”

“Afraid so.” Lee’s hands were folded together, and something very human flickered in her eyes for a moment. “I shouldn’t have let you stay, Lil. I’m sorry.”

“Little too late for that.”  Lilian managed a small, sad smile.  “Have to play the ball where it lies, don’t we?”

“Guess so.” Lee looked down at her hands, then back up at Lilian. “You read the case file, then.”

“Yeah.”  Lilian pushed herself to her feet, moving to the sofa.  “I... didn’t know.  I knew the basics, of course, but... not how bad it was.”

Lee closed her eyes against the memory of warm blood and worse things on her face, and her shoulders finally shook. “My beautiful David. They should have let me stay with him.”

“You’d have died.”  Lilian slid her arms around Lee’s waist.  “Everybody’s got their battles to fight.  That was theirs.”

“Maybe I should have,” Lee’s voice was bleak, but even as she said it her shoulders straightened and she shook her head - as if dismissing the thought. On mission, Spencer. She didn’t say the words, but Lilian could almost hear them anyway.

“I have to come off this case.”  Lilian spoke softly.  “It doesn’t matter what I’d do now that I know this... I’m tainted.  Which means I write one last report and the case falls into a filing cabinet until the next agent crazy enough to want it comes along.”

“And what are you going to put in your report, Agent Stanfield?” Lee’s voice changed again - almost the growl she’d used when she put the gun to Lilian’s neck now.

“What I know, and have the evidence to support.  The psych profile.  The training.  Enough information that, if anyone cares enough to cross-check, they’ll hit the same conclusion I did.”  Lilian closed her eyes.  “I can’t do less.  Or more, for that matter.”

“I understand duty,” Lee said, and then turned her head to kiss Lilian gently. Slowly. With a possesive, tentative warmth that seemed to vibrate between them like the echo of a struck bell. “I understand.”

“I don’t know what else I’m going to do.”  Lilian’s lips lingered gently against Cecilee’s.  “I may not be able to stay.  I may wake up tomorrow morning and propose to you.  I honestly have no idea what I’m going to think when I’ve put a night’s sleep between myself and this.”

“They didn’t go unidentified. Or unpunished.” That low growl again, with a faint hint of satisfaction in it.

“Bastards deserved it.  Not that I’m abandoning my idea that bringing people to justice in a court is better, but... bastards deserved it.”

“The shooter got courtroom justice before he did David. Did a nickel, then bought his way out with a tip and got right back to work doing his same old shit.” Lee kissed her hair, body trembling gently. “No deals, Lil. I put him in the ground, and all his bosses too. If I didn’t owe Frank for anything else, and I do, I’d owe him for helping me do that.”

Lilian’s arms tightened around Lee.  “Is he really off in Mexico?  That’s what everything I’ve seen recently points to.  Or are you out of contact with him?”

“He sends me a postcard, sometimes. He drops a buck in the phone to call if he’s going to be hitting the area on a job.”

“Wait... pay phones are a dollar now?”

“International? Bet your ass.”

“Goddamn.”  Lilian whistled.  “Western society really is falling, isn’t it?”

“Like a dropped hammer. Anyway, he’s not exactly the social type, but last card I got was from Columbia. Knowing him, that means a lot of burning product and dead vatos. ” Lee’s lips pulled back over her teeth in a predator’s smile. “I figure he works the production end, I work distribution, maybe someday we’ll meet in the middle.”

“I think I may prefer what he’s doing, to be honest.  These gangs can’t run without cash, and all the bodies they pile up are for territory to sell that shit.  Plus, it’s not like Columbia’s got a justice system worth a damn anyway.  You burn a few metric tons of it, you do a lot of harm to these guys.”

“I think it feels like home to him. Humping it through the jungle, living on the land, fucking up the natives.” Lee sighed softly, smiling. “This is gonna sound strange, but the last time I saw him he almost seemed... happy.”

“Good for him, I suppose.  More happiness in the world is a good thing... though the idea of Frank Castle happy sort of gives me the willies.”  Lilian leaned close to Lee.  “Fuck, what a day.”

“Yeah.” Lee stroked her hand over the back of the smaller woman’s neck, then leaned in to kiss her again. “No matter what happens tomorrow... I think I’d like to sleep in your bed tonight.”

“I’d like that.”  Lilian’s lips brushed Lee’s gently.  “I’d like it a lot.”

“Come on, then.” Lee stood up and slid the boards over the hole in the floor, then resettled the rug until it was perfect and reached for Lilian’s hand. “No sense waiting.”

Lilian took Lee’s hand with a small, almost-shy smile and followed her from the room.

Chapter Text

“I want to stay.”  Lilian rolled over in bed, pressing against Lee’s back.  “Here.  In this house.  I want to stay.”

“All right.” Lee closed her eyes and leaned back into the warmth of Lilian’s body, her whole body more relaxed than she could recall in a long time. Maybe it was just the nearness of someone who knew , or maybe it was the release of the tension that had been gripping her since Lilian had come home exhausted but with the key to the case in her hands. Either way, she decided to welcome it. “I’d like you to.”

“I love you.”  Lilian spoke softly against the back of Lee’s neck, her breath warm.  “I’ll work on the other cases that are stacked up at the Bureau, maybe chase some terrorists.  Turn my ears off when I hear anything about Punisher at the office.”

“I cleaned the house. I guess not well enough - I’ll go over it again and make sure it’s pristine.” Lee breathed in deeply, her fingers gently tangling with the sheet and blankets over them. “Nothing anyone can hold against you for not seeing.”

“All right.”  Lilian pressed her lips lightly against Lee’s neck.  “Probably a good idea.  Will you be okay, having everything bolted up?”

“It’s not as safe, but they were just precautions. I’ll risk it. Besides, the idea of having a firefight here...” she shuddered softly in revulsion.

“Yeah...”  Lilian closed her eyes.  “Home’s not the place for firefights.”

“No. It isn’t.” Lee lay in silence for a moment, drifting in the near-dark, and then whispered softly, “Frank wouldn’t approve. It’s sloppy, staying here. Having an address. Not living on the move. I know it’s sloppy, and I know it could get me caught or killed, but I can’t bring myself to give it up.”

“It’s your home.  It’s where your memories are.”  Lilian pressed closer.  “Those are important.  More important than any crusade, if you ask me.”

“The mission ought to come first,” Lee murmured as she sank a little deeper into Lilian’s arms, “but David loved this place so much. I couldn’t abandon it. Some stranger living in his house, sleeping in his bed... I couldn’t do that to him.”

“When soldiers go off to war, they keep their family and their home.  They don’t abandon those things, because, beyond everything else, they need the reminder of why they’re fighting.  We all need that.  Cops, soldiers, spies, federal agents... everyone who puts their lives on the line for duty needs a place to remind them why it’s worth it.”

“You know what scares me?” Lee rolled into Lilian, tucking her face into the smaller woman’s shoulder, and her voice trembled a little. “I worry about turning into Frank. About happy being stalking bad men through the jungle and living in the war. I don’t want to wind up someone David wouldn’t know and wouldn’t love if he did.”

“You’ve got the house, you’ve got the pictures, you’ve got the things you loved to do with him.  And, on another note... you’ve got me.  And I’ll be damned if I let that happen.”

“Thank you, Lil.” She leaned up enough to kiss the softness of Lilian’s mouth, drinking in the warmth there, and felt something settle in her like a soothed tiger. “Thank you for that.”

Lilian let her lips linger against Lee’s before whispering, “I need to get ready for work... long day coming up.  Have to get that report assembled and find a case they’ll buy me dropping Punisher for.”

“All right. I have to...” Lee trailed off, then laughed gently into Lilian’s mouth. “I have to go to work, too.”

“I’m sure you do.”  Lilian elbowed Lee gently, then rolled from the bed.  “Home tonight?”

“Yeah. At least for the next week or so. Then I’ll be back to missing nights.” Lee sat up and raked a hand through her golden hair, her smile faint in the dark. “I love you, Lilian.”

“I love you.  Now, where’d I put my pants?”

----------------------------------

“Tell me it’s not because you’re sleeping with her.”

“Does it matter if I am?”  Lilian sighed, leaning back against the wall, and looked up at the man who’d just closed her work-room door. Peter Swierczynski, whose suits were always immaculate and who never looked like he missed a night’s sleep, had rings under his eyes like he’d spent the night drinking instead of sleeping. “She’s my housemate, she’s my friend, she’s my lover... any one of those, considering that she’s also the prime possibility for being Punisher, and I’m tainted.  Bureau takes that sort of thing seriously... so, no, it’s not because I’m sleeping with her.  It’s because I’ve got too much of a connection to her to work the case to Bureau standards, which would be true regardless of if I’m sleeping with her or not.”   All true.  Not going to change the fact that you think it’s because we’re sleeping together.

“Shit.” He leaned back against the door, running a hand through the messy strands of his hair, then gave her a piercing look. “You think she is, or you wouldn’t be pulling out. You’d be digging the hell out of her life to find proof that’d clear her name. Because you have got to know that I was going to see the file, and that I’m not going to stop just because you’ve got personal issues.”

“I’m not going to ask you to stop.”  Lilian brushed a hand through her hair.  “It wouldn’t be fair or right.  File still needs to be assembled and work still needs to be done.  I just can’t be the one to do it.”  Lilian sighed.  “I feel like I’m turning my back on you here, and I’m sorry.”

“Fuck it.” He shook his head, and finally cracked a faint smile as he walked over to push her shoulder lightly. “Leave it to the Bureau to fuck up a simple manhunt by living with the prime suspect. Just proves you all can’t be trusted to tie your own shoe laces, right?”

“And just think, I’m the best they’ve got.”  Lilian offered a small smile.  “I’m going to talk to my boss... see what files on the vigilantes I can get released to you.  It probably won’t be much you don’t already know, but there might be evidence you didn’t know existed, and... well, it’s the least I can do.”

“Thanks.” He studied her face, leaning back in the chair, and then took his badge off his belt and dropped it on the table between them. “So, look, not that it’s any of my fucking business, but did you talk to her about it?”

“Well, she came home to me having turned the house upside-down - nothing illegal or seizable there, by the way - and sitting with my arms around my knees in a half-fetal position.  So... yeah, talked to her about it.  Probably shouldn’t have, but wasn’t exactly in my right mind.”

“Well, I’m not going to ask what she said, because you’re not going to tell me. Either she denied it and you think she’s lying, you’d have to lie to me to protect what she told you, or you’d have to tell me the truth and royally fuck yourself. But whatever it was... you planning to stay?”

“Yeah.”  Lilian sighed softly.  “Dumb as that makes me, yeah.”

“Fuck,” he observed, and shook his head. “You’ve really got it bad for that girl, Lilian.”

“Yeah... yeah, I do.”  Lilian shook her head with a small smile.  “Damn it, I’ve been falling in love with her every time I’ve been in her presence for years... and there’s a big part of me that’s guilty about that.  I mean, I was falling in love with her before her husband was killed... and now he’s gone and she’s fucked up as all shit and I’m with her.  But... at the same time, I am with her.  That’s got to count for something, doesn’t it?”

“Guess it does.” Peter looked at her for a minute across the table, a strange sort of smile on his face. “You know how good the chances are I’m going to be working up a case file on you before too many years go by are, right?”

“Yeah.  Yeah, I know.”  Lilian reached for his hand.  “Make sure the photos get me from a good angle, won’t you?”

“Damn,” he breathed, and it sounded like he had to fight to keep his voice level. “I’ll get you a full spread of angles so you can pick one you like.”

“You’re a good man, Detective Swierczynski.  Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”  Lilian met his eyes.  “I mean it.  Anyone tells you otherwise, let me know and I’ll clock them.”

He held her eyes a long while, his hand still resting on hers, and they let the time pass them by in clipped breaths that pooled around their feet like the first snow of winter. Then he pushed up out of his chair and kissed her forehead like a brother, picked his badge up off the table and crooked a smile at her. “You go enjoy the time you’ve got with that girl of yours, Agent Stanfield, before I bust her with every weapons and murder charge known to man. I’ll see you around, though I hope it isn’t too soon.”

“You take care of yourself, Detective.  I’ll be around.”  Lilian offered him one last smile before leaning back, closing her eyes rather than watching him go.   And the best man I’ve ever known walks out of my life.  God, if my mother was still alive, she’d kill me for that.

The bell at the door rang, signalling Peter’s exit.  As the sound of his car’s motor faded into the noises of the city, Lilian opened her eyes, pushing herself to her feet, and started for the door.   Oh, well.  As little as my mother would like it, apparently I prefer the bad girls.

She ignored the chime, imagining the surprise on Cecilee’s face when she came home from a night of mayhem to find dinner already made. It made her laugh, soft and low, and she tucked in her shoulders against the New York chill as she headed home.

Home. When I had that dream about living with Lee and David, this wasn’t quite how I imagined it, but... I think it’ll do.