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Wolf Like Me

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The first thing Frank heard upon approaching the warehouse was the scream.

A distant sound, echoing and faint, as if coming from the depths of a cave. It sounded wrenching, in that Frank could feel it pull something in his chest. He ignored it. It’d been a long, long time since the sound of a human voice pitched high and tight with pain made Frank pause.

The Italians had set themselves up in an abandoned factory on the lip of Brooklyn, where the shipyards sat. New York City was filled with the ruins of manufactured progress, and the docks lay on the landscape like empty shells waiting for gangs to crawl into them and bring them new life. When the council talked about repurposing the waterfront, they probably didn’t mean like this.

From the street, Frank could see flickering light streaming out from the cracks of boarded windows, under the heavy, rusted doors. There were men stationed outside—only two. They died in silence, like falling asleep. It’s almost a mercy, what Frank gave them. Compared to what the others would see, it was tender.

Eight more on the first floor, four in one room playing a hand of cards around a bunch of crates set up in a makeshift table. Two are gone as easy as blinking, slumped over and spreading across what would’ve been a winning hand before anyone could react. The third stuttered before he fell, and the last managed a scream and squeezed a single round from his pistol before Frank disarmed and stabbed him.

Four more patrolling, armed with semis and on alert. They spread out, swept through the empty floor, others following behind them. They no doubt believed that they were facing the full, military retribution of Anvil’s finest. The loyal dogs coming to reclaim their fallen master.

It’s their misfortune that it’s only Frank.

He killed two more before they were even aware that he was in the room with them. He heard the metallic squeal of a door swinging on rusted hinges, followed by footsteps. He wanted to keep it was quiet as he possibly could, for as long as he possibly could, but it seemed the time for stealth had passed. He knelt beside a fallen body and pulled the AR-15 from limp fingers. He checked the magazine and slid it home.

Another burst of screaming, echoing up through the vents. They must’ve been keeping him in the basement.

It’d be loud, a rat-a-tat that would rouse the rest of the rats from their hiding places, but Frank could feel the pressure of time. Each passing second felt like a pebble dropped into the belly of a sinking ship. They knew something had come for them. The longer they were allowed to keep that knowledge, the more danger the hostage was in. Frank pressed himself against the wall beside a closed door and listened to approaching footsteps. He breathed carefully, silently.

The screaming stopped with a suddenness that nearly made Frank flinch. He flexed his grip on his weapon, breathed out, and waited.

The door opened. Time was up.

Frank couldn’t understand trauma, although he’d faced more than his fair share of it. He couldn’t understand how it affected a person beyond the obvious.

Everyone he knew had PTSD.

He’d read all the brochures, listened to the nice gal with the soft voice and the tortoiseshell glasses explain just how it could impact every single soldier in the room. They’d brought her in from a hospital to talk to them about the difficulties they had lying in wait for them when they went home. The war would never end, it seemed.

Frank thought he had a handle on it. He’d accepted it, figured it for another scar to bear. But certain things still got to him. Little things, details brought out by sense memory as if they were tabbed the a research library of his head, pulled and left to spill across the interior of his mind. The smell of burning metal, rubber and meat was a big one. The sound of pebbles bouncing on stone, but only when it was sandwiched on either side by thick, suffocating silence. A pillar of smoke rising over an orange-brown range of mountains, pressed tight against the horizon. Sand in his eyes.

The warble of carnival music. The pitch of a child’s scream.

Never mind that right now.

There’s one trigger that’s more specific than most others, rarely encountered in the waking world. It stuck with him in dreams. The sound of someone humming, someone tapping the callused pad of their finger against the trigger guard of their rifle. A rare show of nerves from someone Frank had believed to be carved from stone. Billy could be restless, but he wasn’t one to fidget.

It’d been a bad situation, and things had been quiet for too long. Their enemies—the guys on the other side of the line—had pulled back, but not away. Leaving Frank and Billy to hole up in a gutted house in the middle of what used to be somewhere nice before the tanks rolled in and the bombs started to drop years before. Probably some nice family had lived there. Now it served as nothing but a place for Billy and Frank to hide, cornered by enemy soldiers. Trapped like rats.

Billy told Frank they couldn’t wait forever. Their ammo wasn’t unlimited. He volunteered to perform a quick sweep, check to ensure the space was clear. Maybe they could find a good spot for evac. They’d been separated from their squad for close to three hours. Their last order was to hole up and wait until the heat died down, until the rest of their soldiers could find them. Dawn was a long way away. If there was even a remote chance they could make a break for it…

Billy didn’t even make it out of Frank’s sight. Frank heard the stutter of an AK-47, heard bullets ping against rubble, saw Billy raise his own rifle as if in slow motion and then saw him flinch and stumble back before he could squeeze the trigger. Frank smelled the blood before he saw it, iron and salt in the dust-choked air. Saw his boy fall, saw his head bounce off the floor.

Frank cut the other man down, and all his buddies behind him, bellowing over the clatter of his rifle like the sound of his voice had been pulled from his mouth by hooks.

Billy was on the ground, lying where he’d fallen, where blood had spread out beneath him like a black mirror in the poor light, all over the wreckage of what had used to be a fine old house. It bubbled from his lips. He regarded Frank with eyes just as dark, and Frank had read a lot of literature in his time, but he’d never really understood what ‘fathomless’ meant until that moment, when Billy’s eyes were like holes in the bottom of the ocean. He had both hands on his stomach, where blood gurgled and oozed from between his pianist fingers.

Frank was on the radio, screaming for medics, screaming at Schoonover that their time was up.

“Copy that, soldier. We’re coming as quickly as we can,” was the grim reply. It didn’t feel hopeful.

Really, Billy shouldn’t have been out there with Frank. He shouldn’t have been in that desert, with a rifle cradled in his delicate, long-fingered hands. He had an aristocratic body, an old-fashioned beauty, meant for luxury, softness, for pleasure. To be some artist’s muse. To be painted, dressed up and spoiled. In a just universe, Billy Russo never would have met Frank Castle.

Frank hadn’t eaten or slept in more than 24 hours. He felt as if it’d been at least seven hours since he’d even closed his eyes. Not so much as a blink.

He knelt down beside Billy, beside his brother, his boy, and placed both of his shovel-like hands over Billy’s black-slick fingers and pressed down hard. Billy’s scream escaped his chest as a gurgle, a gasp, and then finally just a groaning whine.

Billy looked at Frank like Frank had been the one who’d shot him. His lips moved, but his voice was gone. Frank stared back, dumb and empty behind his eyes, an animal who’d gotten too far in life by pretending to be civilized. It’d be minutes before he could remember how to speak.

“You’re gonna be okay, Bill,” he said, as soon as he could. “You hear me? Billy Russo’s not gonna die like this.”

Frank fumbled with his memory, tried to conjure his field training. It came back in pieces, the information revealing itself to him as if he were flipping through a book. He took a breath and went through the motions, lifted one hand and reached under Billy’s knees, pulled them up.

“Like that,” he mumbled. “Stay, Bill.” He patted Billy’s thigh, slipped his slick hand under the arch of Billy’s back. “Exit wound,” he murmured. Blood like hot water on his searching fingers. “Good.” So much of it, and more coming. Frank swallowed, tried to pretend like his voice wasn’t trembling. “That’s good. The bullet's out.”

His boy. His Billy. The colour gone from his papery skin, pulled out of him, drained all over the floor. His girl-thick lashes flickered and drooped, his gaze sliding over Frank’s face. His lips had stopped moving. Every breath wheezed and bubbled from his open mouth.

Frank murmured soothingly, voice low and quiet, as he removed every layer that stood between his hands and the hole in Billy’s stomach. He found it above the sharp jut of his pelvic bone, skin shiny and black. He stretched out for his pack, dragged it across the floor by its strap, pulled out a field dressing, talking all the while. He’d slipped back into his human skin and now he couldn’t stop.

“You’re gonna be okay. You’re gonna be just fine. I got you. I got you, Bill. Billy.” His voice caught. “Billy. Billy, hey. Hey, look at me.”

Billy’s eyes had shut, pale lids shuttered over liquid black, slipping away as Frank watched. Unresponsive.

He looked like an oil painting under Frank’s hands, in the dark light of pre-dawn. Another beautiful thing ruined.

Frank could’ve run. That should’ve been his first instinct when he learned that Billy had gone missing in transit between meetings. Swallowed up like a ship in the Bermuda triangle by New York City’s bottomless underworld, the same one he and his Anvil had been tunnelling their way into for the last two years. Frank should’ve made plans. He should’ve had plans already in play.

It wasn’t as if anyone would try to stop him. The people in Anvil liked Billy, and they were as loyal to him as men like them could be to anything but a paycheque. He treated them well, paid them generously, and let them play with the nicest, deadliest toys they could legally get their hands on. Anvil looked legit, which let them walk around in the daylight, let them smile at cops. It’d be a hard thing for anyone to give up. If Billy sank, Anvil would go with him and that would be bye-bye to the only gang in town that offered PTO and benefits. The other loop in all their golden handcuffs were locked around Billy’s wrist.

But not Frank’s. Frank was not on any one of Anvil’s ledgers. He was not paid, but he was kept in comfort. Most of the time. When he’d earned it.

He should’ve left. They respected Billy but they were terrified of Frank. In the chaos after Billy vanished, Frank could see that it would be easy to slip away. He wouldn’t even have to kill that many people to do it, probably.

He could’ve left. Billy’s people were good. They were competent. They had access to the same CCTV recordings Frank had seen, they could see the unmarked black vehicle pull up beside Billy’s Wraith, see the masked figures grab, taze and black bag him. They would be able to find him in time. Probably.

Once they rescued Billy, and once he’d recovered, he would come looking for Frank. Frank knew it in his bones. Knew it the way he knew how to breathe. Billy would find him. So why bother running?

That was what he told himself.

Frank had been in places like this before. Where the stink of blood was so thick he could choke on it. Where filth crawled over every surface, growing like a mold, even over the sterling shine of metal instruments. A place where even the light felt dirty.

There were three more people in Frank’s way, and from the dumb, scared looks on their faces, they had not been expecting to encounter something quite like him. Maybe they’d thought from all the noise upstairs that he’d been chewed up in the crossfire. Drenched in blood and reeking of other people’s death, Frank didn’t even pause when he found them.

He ended them, the way he’d ended all those who’d come before them. He’d never felt so pure, so clean. His rage was like a warm blanket, like falling asleep in the snow.

They kept the hostage in the basement. Behind a door that swung open when Frank touched the knob. The stench was thicker in here, fresh enough to make Frank’s eyes sting.

A man lay on the ground beside a chair, head bent at an angle, face turned away from Frank. The silver handle of a scalpel gleamed under the buzzing fluorescent light, where it stuck out of the meat of his neck. This was not Billy—although for the briefest shave of a second, Frank had thought—.

But no. He was too broad, his legs too short, his blood soaked neck too fat. Frank took stock of all the little details—his bent head, his unmoving chest—and then immediately dismissed them. He crept into the room.

There was one other figure, dressed in a pale suit, slumped over the arm of a chair. His dark head bowed into the cradle of his elbow, wrist bound. One arm unbound, flung over the ledge of the seat, long, pale fingers stained a sticky red. In that moment, Frank thought he looked beautiful.

The two of them, the killer and the killed, stranded alone in the centre of a pool of light. The long line of the slumped figure, of his exposed neck, of the small quarter of visible skin below his ear above his stained collar, the curve of his cheek, looked lovely. Like something Frank could’ve found hanging in an art gallery. Painted in shades of cream and red so dark it was almost black.

Frank watched him, just long enough to see the cage of his chest move. And then he thought—

I could leave him for his men to find.

I could kill him now.

I could end this.

I could be free.

It’d be easy.

(That last one was a lie.)

Frank stepped over the body. He took Billy’s free arm in one hand, and his shoulder in the other, and unbent him, pushed him back onto the chair, and it would be so simple, so easy. There was a tray with silver instruments. There were other scalpels.

Billy’s face was bruised and bloodied. His cheeks looked fat, as if they’d been stuffed with gauze. One eye had swollen completely shut. His nose was black and blue, dripping blood with each wheezing breath.

Frank took the broken bridge in both hands and pulled the cartilage, resetting it with a horrible crack. Billy screamed himself awake, flinching back hard enough to rock the chair. Fear and panic made him look so painfully young.

The moment passed and recognition took its place. Billy settled, his breath sputtering wetly in his lungs, eyelid listing. He didn’t stir when Frank reached over and plucked a scalpel from the tray.

They’d tied him down with duct tape. There was a twisted, stretched but unbroken silver loop on the other arm of the chair, where Billy must’ve worked his slim wrist through. It must’ve taken ages. Frank knelt down, slipped the scalpel under the other wrist and cut it loose.

Upstairs, he heard a door slam open, and the sound of feet. Billy tensed, breath gasping, and tried to push himself up, but he jerked against the bonds still holding his ankles down.

It would still be so easy. The scalpel felt cool and dry in Frank’s grip. The blade cut through the tape cleanly. Frank could put it under Billy’s chin, where the skin was tender, and end it. He placed a hand on Billy’s narrow chest and pushed him back.

“It’s your people.” Frank didn’t look up into his face as he lifted the hem of Billy’s slacks, revealing the small knot of his ankle. They’d taken his shoes. “They’re comin’ to clean up the mess. Get anyone I’d missed.”

“Did…” Billy’s voice was something terrible, shredded and fumbled over a thick, dumb tongue. “Did you… Did you miss…?” His one good eye barely visible beyond the dark fan of his thick lashes. Blood drooled from his lips. Without thinking, Frank wiped them clean with the edge of his sleeve.

“Just one,” Frank said, inclining his head towards the corpse on the ground. “But you got him for me.” He touched his fingers to the bruised, sticky swell of Billy’s cheek. “Good boy.”

Billy made a quiet, broken sound, almost too low for even Frank to hear. He slumped forward, the strings of consciousness snapping. Frank caught him before he could fall.

He gathered Billy in his arms, and he could still do it. He could still end this, and Billy wouldn’t even feel it. He could sleep through it. It’d be kinder than he deserved.

On the tray beside Billy’s chair, Frank noticed for the first time a set of pliers set upon a curl of blood, a perfect half-circle, the silver pincers stained red. Beside them, scattered like they’d been dropped, were three pretty, perfect white molars.

Frank shifted Billy onto his shoulder, freeing one arm. He took the pliers, and the teeth.

Frank carried him upstairs. Billy only stirred when the medics appeared and other men reached for him with unfamiliar hands. He shifted in Frank’s arms, feeble as a kitten, like he was trying to get away.

Back when times were good, quiet, Frank would read beside Billy. When neither of them were interested in starting a good-natured argument over chess or checkers (Billy was such a sore loser), when Frank didn’t want to split his finger tips on guitar strings (“Just get a pick, you self-flagellating Catholic fuck.”), when the prospect of playing cards with the rest of the squad (people Frank liked well enough, but only in measured doses) didn’t appeal, he’d pick up one of the slim trade paperbacks that floated between bedside tables and settle in to read.

Frank preferred modern American literature. Steinbeck and Hemingway. The kind of bearded, barrel-chested, whisky-swilling assholes who wrote about depression and The Depression. War, blood, misery and violence. Billy’d give him a hard time for it.

Early on in their relationship, when Frank only knew a fraction of the things he’d learn about Billy, Billy actually snagged Frank’s copy of The Old Man and The Sea right out of his fingers.

“This is the one about the guy trying to reel in a fish, right?” Billy scanned the page and made a face.

Frank stared at him. The others in the tent stared at him. The air turned and people had gone quiet, watching Billy and Frank expectantly.

Frank tried to be good to his squad, but he was a big guy and there were certain stories that would always follow him around. A snap of recognition he could see in people’s expressions when they heard his name for the first time, figured out that he was that Frank Castle. His squad could be rough with him, but they held back on him in a way they didn’t with the others. No one really messed with him. No one touched his things without permission.

“Shoulda figured you’d be into this tough guy shit.”

No one except for this pretty, skinny nobody who talked too much. He tossed the book back, where it landed on Frank’s chest with a thwap.

“Surprised it’s not A Farewell to Arms,” he said.

The soldiers tried to look busy but Frank could feel their regard. He felt like a circus bear.

“I read that one last year,” Frank said. He tapped his book. “This one’s new to me.”

“Looks boring.” Billy settled back onto his cot, stretching his hands above his head. Frank’s gaze drifted down to his lean stomach.

“You ever read Hemingway?” he asked. The attention on them fizzled, now that it was obvious that Frank wasn’t about to maul him, and the ambient noise of other people’s conversations rose again.

“Once, for English class. The, uh, one that was apparently about abortion?” Billy snagged his book from their shared bedside table. He was the kind of reader who let books lay flat on their stomachs, who cracked spines and dog-eared the pages. He wasn’t nice to anything. “Although they never said the word in the text. We were just supposed to know, I guess.”

“That was a short story,” Frank said.

“It didn’t feel like one.” Billy stuck his pillow under his neck and settled back, holding his book above his face.

Frank had spent the last few weeks noticing Billy. Watching him out of the corner of his eye, lurking close to the edge of every conversation without getting involved. Not out of shyness. Frank Castle could be a lot of things, but no one would ever accuse him of being shy. Because he was curious. The way cats get curious about the birds singing in the branches high above.

Frank felt as if Billy had given him an opportunity, an opening. Still curious, he decided to take it.

“What about you? What’ve you got there?” He jerked his chin at the book in Billy’s loose grip.

Billy twisted his wrist and showed Frank a picture of a man standing on the edge of a cliff. “Frankenstein,” he said.

“You like that Victorian shit?” Frank asked.

One side of Billy’s mouth lifted in a smile. “It’s just something to read. I never got to it in high school.” He cut a glance at Frank’s face. “You can borrow it when I’m done.”

Frank did. He liked it alright, although sometimes the flowery language made his eyes glaze over.

A week later, he found Billy sprawled over his cot with Frank’s beat-up Hemingway in his hands, scowling at the pages. Frank laughed at him.

“This shit’s so boring,” Billy groused, rubbing at his eyes. “Is he gonna kill the fish or what?”

“I ain’t telling you that,” Frank said. “You gotta get to the end.”

The bullet had gone straight through. That was good, or so Curt had told him. He didn’t smile when he said it.

Trouble was, the bullet had gone through Billy’s stomach. And it wasn’t like in the movies, where no one had died from a gut-shot since the Civil War. People were compact—Billy was more compact, more spare than most—and evolution had put a lot of valuable things in the abdomen.

Billy would need emergency surgery. They were scheduling an evac to the closest military hospital. Curt said some other things, but he said them to his fellow corpsmen, in a voice too low for Frank to hear. Frank caught the words ‘sepsis’ and ‘shock’ and sat down hard on the flimsy bench they’d set up outside the med tent. Curtis looked at Frank with honest empathy in his gaze and told him to get some rest.

Frank stared back, empty.

Billy Russo couldn’t go out like that. Frank knew it in his guts, in the core of his bones, with every pump of his animal heart. His brilliant, beautiful Bill couldn’t die bleeding out under a surgeon’s scalpel because of complications. The world owed him more than that. Something cleaner.

Frank requested permission to follow Billy to the hospital, and his C.O.—who maybe knew a thing or two about the nature of Billy and Frank’s relationship and maybe saw something in the hollowed out space of Frank’s gaze—let him.

Frank sat in a waiting room with dust on his clothes and blood under his nails, red-brown like rust curved around the cuticle bed, and tried to imagine the world adjusting to such an absence. Tried to imagine someone else sleeping in the cot on Frank’s right side. A breath, a snore he couldn’t recognize. An unfamiliar voice speaking in the emptiness carved by Billy’s silence.

Feeling wretched but determined, he pushed through the full fantasy and imagined taking another man out behind the crates. Imagined holding another wrist in the loop of his fingers, feeling another spine rub against the curl of his chest, putting his hand over another person’s ribs, feeling that stranger’s rhythm. Hearing another man’s voice moan his name.

Frank rubbed his face with a shaking hand. Anger burned in the cave of his chest, casting dancing shadows behind his eyes. He couldn’t. He knew he couldn’t.

He imagined writing the letter to Maria. He was terrible with words, but she would need to know. She would be all sympathy for him, and the kids would be sad. They would mourn their Uncle Billy as a family, digest the misery of his death, his absence from their lives, and then they would spit out the pain like watermelon seeds and move on.

Maria had stood by Frank’s side through twelve funerals now. Twelve times she’d put on her black dress, listened to some holy words, and watched a coffin lower into a hole in the ground. She would feel so bad for Frank. She would touch his face and hug him close and she would tell him that she understood. And he would want so badly for that to be true.

She would think of it, of Billy’s death, as being the same as all the ones who’d gone before him. The thirteenth in line, another tombstone.

Frank looked down at his hand, at the white line of his knuckles straining under his skin. He forced out a hard breath and flexed his cracked, aching fingers.

Billy wouldn’t die. Not out here, not like this. The world owed him better, and Frank would see it delivered.

Frank must’ve fallen asleep at some point. He dreamt.

There was no peace for Frank, not in any part of him, and certainly not in black space inside his head. It wasn’t a thing he could get used to—the heart that still beat in his chest was as human as the rest of him—but he’d started to expect it. To waking up to a pump of adrenaline surging through his chest, to a shout of warning coming out of his mouth far, far too late. Screaming for someone who was long past help.

But those dreams had begun to taper off. And sometimes when Frank slept, he didn’t go to his home with Maria.

He dreamt of a desert, of a sun pinned in a true blue sky like a white rose boutonniere in a gentleman’s lapel. Pebbles bouncing in his boots with each step, the crunch of sand and gravel under his soles. Sweat drying on his brow.

A few steps ahead of him, a tall, slim figure in green fatigues. No gun at his hip, no rifle on his back, no knife at his side. Neck and ears turning pink under the glare, so painfully exposed above his rumpled collar. Billy. His Billy, the way Frank would always remember him.

“Where’re we goin’, anyway?” Frank asked, picking up a conversational thread he’d forgotten he’d dropped.

Billy looked back at Frank. The sun glared in front of him, cutting him into a line, a black silhouette in the orange and blue landscape. His face was lost to it, burned away, but Frank saw the white curve of his smile.

It would take three, maybe four steps to close the distance between them. Frank knew that if he touched his lips to Billy’s long neck, he’d taste salt, almond-scented lotion, and the herbal oils he rubbed on his beard. Billy was the first man Frank had ever met who took such care in his appearance. Frank might’ve been the only man in their squadron who didn’t give him a hard time over it.

Billy made no reply but for his smile. He reached out for Frank with a clean, dry hand.

Frank woke just as he reached back, his fingers a breath away from Billy’s hand.

Ribs fractured in three places. Broken nose (reset before examination). Fractured brow. Left index finger broken. Left ring finger broken. Left middle finger broken. Right shoulder dislocated. Laryngeal tearing. Three molars removed—one in the upper right side, two in the lower right side. Multiple bruises and lacerations, focused in the face, mid-section and abdomen. Concussion.

They couldn’t afford to take him to a hospital. Anvil might’ve appeared legit to the outside observer—and Billy Russo might’ve looked like a legit business man—but the kinds of injuries he’d endured under the tender care of his enemies were the kind that would’ve raised a lot of uncomfortable questions. The kind that might’ve required a call to the cops.

If mob doctors could be trusted on one thing beyond their discretion—and that might’ve been the case—it was their ability to deliver results. Forget malpractice suits; any doctor who fucked up their treatment, or made a mistake, or did anything that might’ve resulted in the deterioration of their patient’s health, stood the risk of finding a stranger waiting for them behind the locked door of their nice house. Mob doctors had a lot more to lose.

This particular doctor had an office that looked legit, with three diplomas on her wall, a skeleton propped in the corner, and potted plants in the waiting room. It was nicer than Frank had expected. More importantly, the office had a radiology department.

Frank waited outside the room for the examination. People gave him a wide berth, looked at him when they thought he wasn’t paying attention. His clothes were dark enough to hide the stains, but the fabric had gotten stiff and tacky.

The office had been dark when they’d arrived, and they kept most of the lights off now. Frank stared at shadowed frames on the walls, and tried to guess what they might’ve held. Kids running through a field. An advertisement for allergy medication. Two old people holding each other and smiling. A cross-section of a human foot. More diplomas.

He couldn’t hear much, but now and then, he heard Billy’s voice, pitched low and tight with pain. And every single time it happened, the other two Anvil guards would look over at Frank. Like they expected him to march in there and take care of things. They’d seen what he’d done to the Gnuccis. Did they expect him to spread that violence to this nice place, with its drawn venetian blinds and its wood panelling?

Frank looked down at his scrubbed hands. They stank of disinfectant, of the foaming alcohol solution that came out of hospital bathroom soap dispensers.

His mind took him back to that place, when the hooks of adrenaline began to loosen their hold on him. He thought about the circumstances of Billy’s capture. It’d been enroute to a private meeting. Someone must’ve tipped the Italians off. Someone who knew Billy’s schedule.

The doctor wrote three scrips, and gave them all to Frank. A big man in blue scrubs lurked behind her, watching Frank with a drawn, mean expression. It was funny, the way they both assumed he was in charge.

“Is he done?” Frank asked.

The doctor—she never gave a name, but the sign Frank had checked before coming inside had said Dr. Holden—stuck her hands in her pockets and shrugged. “I reset and splinted what I could. He’s probably gonna get an infection, though. Call me if he starts running a fever. Before midnight, if you can.” She tried to smile.

They wanted to take Billy back to his penthouse, but Frank had them put him in a hotel instead. He found out the names of the two guards they’d stuck him with (Chen and Green), and then he found out their home address and their family’s names, where their kids went to school, the retirement home their parents were in. He told them not to tell anyone in the company where Billy had gone. He told them that they were the only ones who could know. He told them what would happen to them if someone Frank didn’t approve of, someone Frank didn’t know, came visiting. He got a little colourful about it, and tried not to feel too satisfied when he saw them break into a sweat.

Frank used the Anvil platinum card and booked himself the hotel room beside Billy’s. They had a connecting door, which Frank kept unlocked. He sent Chen out with the scrips and told her to take care of it.

The next few days were strange for Frank. For the most part, he stayed away from Billy. Billy stayed in the hotel room, with Chen and Green standing guard. He was kept doped up on prescription painkillers, sleeping the worst of his injuries off. Safe and sound.

As far as Frank was concerned, two unforgivable things had happened.

The first, and arguably worst one, was that someone in Anvil had sold Billy out. Someone Billy had hired, someone he trusted—or at least, trusted as much as he trusted anyone on his payroll—had betrayed him. That was a bad look to anyone paying attention. Which tied into the second unforgivable thing, perhaps the one that would have the most enduring damage.

Billy’s people had only ever seen him as the man in charge. The guy in the suit who held all their reigns in his clean, manicured hands. Polished, flawless and imposing. And now those same people had seen him bloodied, brought low. Weak. Human.

He stood to lose a lot of respect over this. In this game, even the slightest wobble was an invitation to get shoved to the ground. If Billy’s enemies were paying attention now, they might think their chance was coming.

It shouldn’t have mattered to Frank. He should’ve gotten out. Opened Billy’s arterial vein in that filthy basement and watched him sigh one last time, life streaming hot down his neck and chest. It would’ve been easy, for the both of them.

Frank leaned against the door frame and stared into the other hotel room, to where Billy lay enrobed in a white duvet that looked as thick and soft as the clouds cartoon cherubs would fall asleep in. His eyes were shut, lashes flickering with the movement under his lids. His breath puffed from his parted lips, a sound and rhythm so familiar it twisted something in Frank’s chest.

Liar. You goddamn lying coward.

“I knew that was you I heard.”

Billy was awake, propped up in the hospital bed. His big doe eyes ringed with lavender shadows, making him look younger than ever, like a tragic orphan in a cartoon strip. His hair hung in dark, limp strands over his waxy face. His pale, bloodless lips stretched into a smile when he saw Frank enter the ward. It looked painful.

“You look like shit, Bill,” Frank said as he pulled a chair to his bedside.

“I knew it was you,” Billy went on as if Frank hadn’t spoken. “Heard you before. When I had my eyes closed. Shoutin’ my name.” His violet lids flickered over his bloodshot eyes. “Soundin’ like a kid. Scared.”

The only thing that kept him from slumping over was the cardboard-thin pillows they’d built around him like scaffolding around a restoration site. Half the hospital’s supply must’ve been in that little bed with him. An extra blanket, too, Frank noticed. Most patients could only dream of getting that kind of treatment. He suspected that all Billy had to do was flutter his eyelashes at some nurse and say ‘please’.

“They got you doped up good, don’t they?” Frank asked, nodding at the large machine feeding Billy a steady drip of morphine.

“Eleven hours of surgery,” Billy said. His words stretched, voice drawn out as slow and sweet as dripping honey. “The bullet hole was clean, but it went through my guts. Guess you’re not supposed to get holes in there.”

“That’s what I keep hearing,” Frank said.

Sunlight streamed in from the line of narrow windows above their heads, illuminating dust motes drifting in the air. Outside, it was baking, but the air in the hospital was cool and dry, and smelled like disinfectant, lemon cleaners, and a little like blood. It was nice.

And Billy was there, in one piece, his expression glazed with sleep and efficient painkillers. Head listing the nest of pillows those charmed nurses had built for him. Looking at Frank with eyes like slices of black water in the landscape of his face.

“I heard you before,” Billy said, his brows drawn together. A thick lock of hair swept across his forehead. “Lookin’ for me. You got lost?”

“I haven’t been anywhere, Billy.” Frank leaned his arms on the bed, inches from Billy’s limp hand. “I never lost you. You must’ve been dreaming.”

“Can’t be…” he said, his gaze sliding from Frank’s face. “I heard you.”

“The doc says you’ve got a few weeks of recovery ahead of you,” Frank said, leaning closer. “It’s gonna be soup and jello ‘til then. You’ll get thin.” Frank’s voice hitched, heat rising to his face. He didn’t understand why his throat felt hot and tight, why his eyes stung so suddenly. Like an allergic reaction. He rubbed his nose and sniffed. Blinked hard and looked down at the rumpled spread of blanket between his arms. Breathed through his mouth until he could get it back under control.

Billy was fine. He was here, awake and mostly alert. He’d gone through the woods and come out the other side, back to Frank. Right where he belonged.

Frank twitched when he felt something cool press against the back of his pinkie. He looked over and saw the tip of Billy’s finger resting on his knuckle.

“You got lost, Frankie.” He spoke so softly. Frank could barely hear him.

He laughed, sniffed again, and took Billy’s fine-boned hand in both of his. “I keep tellin’ you, I haven’t gone anywhere.”

“Must’ve been a memory,” Billy said. His voice had slowed to a molasses thick drawl, so unlike his usual rapid fire patter. His lids had begun to slide shut. “Things were gettin’… nn…” His voice softened until there was no sound at all. His head lolled to the side, eyes shut completely.

Frank ran his thumb across Billy’s knuckles. He looked down at his slender fingers and thought once again how unfair it was, that Billy should be in a place like this. That his fingers should have knicks and scars, calluses and cracked skin. Frank looked around before giving into temptation, and brought Billy’s hand to his lips.

In a just world, Billy would get to go home, safe and sound and in one piece.

Frank didn’t make any promises, not even to himself, because he wasn’t a child. He knew he couldn’t guarantee Billy’s safety. He knew that Billy was good, that he was very good, but there were graveyards filled with his betters. It didn’t matter how skilled you were, because it mostly came down to luck, to dumb chance, to someone having a better day than you. This wasn’t a just universe, and Frank had to play by the same rules as everyone else. He had to watch his friends die.

But not this one. The words rose within him, driven from the parts of his brain that had no use for logic, the red-black centre of him, so deep within that no light touched it, where the current of his tireless rage churned like a geyser always ready to pop.

He breathed through the moment, closed his eyes, and told himself that loss was inescapable. That war took its prizes. There was nothing he could do. The things they’d taught him to think after he watched his first friend die.

All the while, the words pounded against his chest, against his skull, like something looking to escape. Not this one. Not this one. This one I keep.

He closed his eyes and crushed his lips against the back of Billy’s hand.

This one’s mine.

Billy’s good moods would come and go like the tides. Sometimes he’d be in the centre of it all, smiling bright at anyone he cared to look at, bouncing his knee against the flat of his palm, filling the air with his chatter, his purring voice. He was like that a lot in the beginning, when they were all new to each other.

Frank would label and catalogue them all by those first few weeks. He was a young man, and he still believed people were exactly as they presented themselves. There was Stevens, with his cow-like stare and love of slasher flicks. Shy. There was Knock (aka ‘Knockers’, naturally), who played air guitar and slapped out drum solos on his thighs. Jittery. Rubens, who kept his things in regimented order, like his collection of books were soldiers themselves. Fussy.

Russo, who talked too much and smiled with too many teeth showing. Charming.

After a few months, Frank noticed a change. Billy spent less time in the tent when the others were around. He didn’t join in on the poker games, or the battered game of Travel Scrabble. Smiled less often. Got a little quieter. He’d started to pull away from the others.

But not from Frank.

When it was quiet, and he was in the mood for it, Billy’d slink out of wherever he’d been hiding and sprawl over his cot like those long, elegant cats rich ladies liked to spoil. He’d grab one of the books they kept in a pile on their shared night stand and read.

Sometimes he’d grab one of Frank’s books. He’d pull faces and complain about his shitty taste whenever Frank found him.

“Vonnegut’s great,” Frank said without any heat. “I’m surprised you don’t like his stuff.”

Billy’s nose wrinkled. “Too weird.”

Billy liked to read older novels. He spent weeks tearing through what Frank privately thought of as the Universal Monsters collection. Frankenstein, Dracula, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde… He liked Poe, but hated Dickens. Frank liked Poe’s short story collection, but couldn’t get through The Fall of the House of Usher. They both liked Stephen King. They’d order short story collections and trade-off when they’d finish one, or if they got bored with the author.

Frank got them Shirley Jackson, because he thought Billy might like her. Billy got M.R. James, because Frank had enjoyed Poe so much. Billy complained that Steinbeck’s The Pearl was too depressing. Frank thought the painter in The Portrait of Dorian Grey was too stupid to live.

Billy laughed when he mentioned it. “He was too horny to think. Give the guy a break.”

It took Frank a second to remember how to breathe. No one in their little world talked so openly about the way men could sometimes look at other men. The way Frank occasionally caught other soldiers looking at Billy.

Billy would lie down beside Frank—on the cot three feet from his own—and page through slim volumes, sharing whatever might’ve come to his head as he worked through another novel. If Billy got to a book before Frank, he’d write notes in the margins for him. ‘Can you believe this shit?’ or ‘This’ll be your favourite part I bet’ or just little comments, little asides, whatever was going through his head at the time. Which characters he liked, which he hated. Sometimes he would just doodle.

He only ever did this with Frank.

The next week was a strange one for Anvil’s employees. Only a few people knew exactly what happened to their fearsome leader. Those few, those who were there on the night of the rescue, became difficult to reach. Stopped showing up for work. Took vacation time they might not have earned yet.

Those who weren’t there that night didn’t know what to make of their boss’ sudden disappearance. A memo was issued, informing them to take direction from their supervisors, and they were told nothing else.

No one saw Frank Castle.

But now and then, an employee would come into work in the morning with a limp in their step, or a bruise curling around the hollow of their eyes. Maybe they’d hold their sides when they sat up. Maybe they’d wince when they laughed. If anyone asked what happened, they would smile, face slick with the sheen of sweat, and assure them that it was nothing. It was nothing. They were just clumsy.

One employee in particular, a man named Reed, noticed the sudden rash of minor injuries, started to notice it happening to the people he’d spoken to in private, the people in his department, getting closer and closer to him. He worried. He made calls in the back stairwells, hissing into the receiver with one hand cupped over his mouth. He’d come back with sweat staining his button-up.

And then one morning, Reed stopped coming into work.

The first time he took Billy, they’d known each other for four months. Four months spent watching the way other men watched Billy, watching the way he’d sprawl in his cot, watching the way he could assemble and disassemble his rifle, hands precise and movements smooth. Four months taking in little details. The curve of his wrist when he held a book. The splay of his fingers over his stomach. The long, elegant line of his neck. The stretch of his legs. Girly shit.

And whenever Billy caught him looking, he’d smile at Frank. Frank had seen it before, seen Billy aim it at the others every now and then. A slow, sly look, a smile with a promise in it. He didn’t know who taught Billy Russo how to smile like that, but he wanted to meet them. Right around the time Frank started really paying attention to Billy, Billy’d stopped giving out that look to any of the others and Frank wondered just what the hell he was building with this kid.

Now and then, he would look over only to find Billy already looking back. Sometimes Frank would catch something in Billy’s expression, looking at him like something starved, shivering, neglected. The more time they spent with each other, the more Frank found himself moulding his existence around Billy. Filling spaces that he’d never thought needed filling before.

Their first time was inevitable. Frank understood that now, but at the time, it’d felt like a decision only he could make. He’d made the first move, took Billy’s delicate wrist in his big fingers and lead him away from the others. And Billy smiled with teeth showing, looking relieved, looking impatient. It wasn’t sweet, what they did—nothing between them would ever be sweet—but it wasn’t what Frank had expected, neither.

That first time, Frank tried to tell himself that they were just using each other. They were just filling a need, doing each other a favour. Frank had never done anything like this before, but he’d heard the other guys talk around it.

It didn’t have to be serious. It was just a need. Nothing special.

The first time Frank pressed his nose against the knot of Billy’s spine, breathed in the smell of his fancy soap, his cologne, his bare skin, he knew he was lying to himself.

He thought about their first time as he straddled the rat his diligent search had dug out. He thought about the curve of Billy’s spine, the first time he’d seen the bare skin of his back, the push and flex of his muscle. The way his shoulders moved as Frank moved inside of him. The bend of his neck as Billy bowed his head into his folded arms, the way the skin stretched over the knot of his spine. All kinds of stupid shit had filled Frank’s head during that first time. He remembered wondering about all the other people who’d gotten to see these parts of Billy. He thought about the first time he’d pressed his face there, in that vulnerable stretch above his spine, and made dumb, kid promises about the future inside his head. Lips inches from the salt of Billy’s neck.

The world was always trying to take things from Frank.

“L-look pal—It wasn’t me. You’ve got it wrong.”

There’s a particular kind of fear that made everyone look alike to Frank’s eyes. Frank used to pretend it made him feel bad, used to pretend he was a person, but that kind of sentiment and acting took more energy than he had to spare. He pressed the flat of his palm against the man’s sweat-slick forehead and thought about the first time he put his hand on Billy’s hip.

Frank made the Anvil goon he'd requisitioned for this job, Siminovitch, hold the cellphone. Frank didn’t own one, wasn’t a fan of them, but now and then he found a need for them.

Chen and Green were waiting in Frank’s hotel room when Frank returned. They were seated on the bed Frank hadn’t bothered to sleep in, a game of cards spread between them. The door between rooms was propped open. Frank glanced through long enough to ensure that Billy was where he’d left him, whole and breathing.

Chen and Green scrambled to their feet as soon as he stepped inside, and listened with pained attentiveness, looking like a pair of kids who’d been caught slacking, while Frank told them what they were going to do next. Their eyes were wide and their faces went bloodless as they took him in. They fled as soon as he dismissed them.

Frank stood in the doorframe between rooms once the door clicked shut behind them. Billy’s fever had broken two days ago, but he still looked pale. His hair spread under his head like a puddle of brackish water. Frank could track his breathing by the shift of his duvet, hear its familiar rhythm. He’d been listening to Billy breathe at night for close to a decade, now.

For some reason, he thought of Frankenstein. Of a particular print that’d been included in the high school copy of the novel Billy had gotten. An image of the monster standing over his creator’s bed, clutching at the curtains hanging from the posters, backlit by what looked like a thunderstorm. Victor in the frame below him, reared back with terror, a dark figure against the white blankets.

The weather outside was fine; a clear, hot summer night. The bed they’d put Billy in was just a standard hotel bed, with standard hotel sheets and pillows, not a four poster, curtained Victorian thing. And Billy wouldn’t recoil from Frank. Not even now.

For the first time since he’d left Billy one week prior, Frank crossed the threshold and stepped into the other room.

The swelling had gone down in Billy’s face, but now he’d swung too hard in the opposite direction. He looked drawn, cheeks hollowed out, visible even under the untrimmed growth of his beard, like he was withering. He was pale under his bruises, and his skin looked clammy to the touch. His injured hand lay on his chest, fingers thick with bandages and splints.

There was a pile of books at the bedside table. Frank caught a few familiar titles. He reached out for an oddly beaten-up copy of ‘The Telltale Heart’ when Billy opened his eyes. Like he hadn’t been asleep in the first place.

He fixed Frank with a blank look, as if he didn’t recognize him, or maybe he just didn’t recognize his circumstances. It should’ve been familiar to him. Frank wondered if, in the midst of his fever, Billy had noticed he was gone.

 “You look like shit, Bill,” Frank said.

The words—or maybe the sound of Frank’s gravel-rough voice—seemed to bring him back into focus, brought life back into his eyes.

“Thanks,” Billy said sourly. He struggled in the absurd softness of his duvet and pillows, trying to pull himself into a seated position. “They told me I was out of it for four fucking days. Sweatin’ through a fever. Can’t believe you left me with Tweedledee and Tweedledumb.”

“They’re trustworthy,” Frank said. He picked up the novel he’d eyed before.

“I hope you weren’t takin’ their word on that,” Billy said. “They told me you were the reason I’m stuck in some chain hotel instead of at home in my nice penthouse, with access to my good bourbon, and my 900 thread count sheets.”

“You know that thread count thing is just a scam, right?” Frank said, turning the book over in his hands.

“Shut the fuck up. Why am I here, Frank?”

Some colour had come back to Billy’s face, a red flush under the fading purple, black and blue. He clutched at the sheets with his good hand, bunched them into his trembling fist. The few undamaged fingers on his left hand twitched, like they were itching to grip something.

“Your capture was an inside job,” Frank said. The scratch across the plot description on the back cover—didn’t that look familiar? “I didn’t want anyone to know where you were.”

That pulled the colour back, drained the rising heat from his doll-like eyes. “Inside.” He must’ve known, or at least suspected. Billy wasn’t stupid. He slumped back into his pillows. “Right.”

Frank drew his finger down the cracked, flaking paper of the spine. “Is this from Iraq?”

“Why am I only hearing about this now?” Billy asked, quiet. “Where have you been all week?”

“Taking care of it. This is the same book, isn’t it?” He flipped it open, looking for faded pencil markings. “D’you still write in the margins?”


Something in Billy’s voice slipped past all of his guards, deft as a surgeon’s scalpel, right into the centre of his nervous system. Frank looked up and found Billy watching him with a face empty of expression, and eyes as cold and black as burnt out night sky.

“You took care of it?” he asked.

“Yeah.” Frank tossed the book back to where he’d found it and fished in his pocket for Siminovitch’s cell. “Got somethin’ for you.” He swiped his finger across the blood-smeared screen, tapped in the code he’d bullied out of Siminovitch, and passed it down to Billy.

Billy took it gingerly from him, lips pulling back in disgust at the tacky, sticky film that clung to its shiny surface.

“What is this?” he asked as the video began to play.

Frank turned away, headed towards the ensuite as the tinny sound of voices filled the air behind him. He peeled out of the Anvil-branded wind breaker he’d stolen from the warehouse, wincing at the pull of dried blood on his arms.

“It’s not like that, okay?” Little rat Reed, voice burbling through the broken nose Frank had given him seconds before Siminovitch turned the camera on.

“I’ve seen the bank statements. Your incredible disappearing debt.” Frank winced again, embarrassed at the sound of his own voice. “Tell the camera what you told me.”

More sputtering, followed by the sound of Frank’s sledgehammer fist hitting the punk’s stomach. Frank hit the tap and held his still-red arms under the stream. The roar of water drowned the rest of it out, but Frank didn’t need to hear anything else. He knew what happened next. Reed would spit and sob his way through a confession, beaten out of him by the mad man sitting on his chest. And then he’d beg. And then Frank would beckon Siminovitch closer, reach into his back pocket, and pull out a pair of hardware store pliers.

“You know what these are?” Frank asked, holding them up. Some of the blood had flaked off, but there were still stains on its silver teeth. Reed tracked the movement, paralyzed as a mouse in the sightline of a cat. “Do you know what they were used for?”

Frank scrubbed his hands and the skin on his arms until he was clean, blood running off in streams of pink water down the drain. He picked at what had dried under his blunt nails, but it didn’t come out easy. He wondered if Billy would even mind.

“N-no, no please, p-please.” They all used the same words, even if it came in a language Frank didn’t understand. A universal constant. No. Please. Used to be, those words might’ve made Frank feel a little rotten.

He gripped Reed’s jaw with one hand and told Siminovitch to stop being so goddamn shy already.

Reed started screaming. Frank could feel the weight of Billy’s gaze, through time and technology, heavy on his back.

Frank emerged from bathroom five minutes later, stripped of his shirt and smelling like fancy hotel soap, like lavender and other flowers. Billy didn’t look up, his gaze locked on the phone held tight in his shaking hand. The wet sound of muffled screaming emitted from its shitty speakers.

“You did this?” Billy asked, glancing up at last. The edge of the bed dipped under Frank’s weight. “This is the guy who sold me out?”

Billy looked so young. His big, dark eyes shining like water at the bottom of a deep well. Feeling something close to sentimental, and knowing the danger in it, Frank reached out and brushed the loose hair back from Billy’s head.

“C’mere,” Billy said.

Frank planted one hand beside Billy’s head, above his shoulder and leaned over him. Billy turned his face to the side, eyes still locked on the screen, exposing the curve of his long neck.

“Right here, Frankie.”

Frank took the invitation, lowering himself beside Billy, cautious of his still-tender ribs. He nosed at the juncture of Billy’s neck and shoulder, expecting the sharp, sour tang of old sweat. Instead, Billy smelled clean, like the same soap Frank had used moments before. He must’ve showered at some point after the fever broke. He wondered if Billy had asked for help. Frank pressed a kiss to Billy’s throat, to his beating pulse, to the scratchy underside of his chin.

No, he decided. Billy wouldn’t have asked for help from the likes of Chen and Green. He wouldn’t let them touch him. Frank pushed the duvet down, exposing Billy’s bare chest. His fingers skimmed over his stomach, which jumped under the light touch. He felt the motion of Billy’s swallow, could hear the change in his breathing.

Slowly, carefully, Frank lay one big hand on Billy’s abdomen, just under the gate of his ribs. Touching him. Frank went still, and waited.

Billy turned back to Frank at last, his nose nudging Frank’s forehead. “Oh, sugar.” He exhaled the word across the top of Frank’s head. “You go ahead. You get to touch me all you like. You did so good—.”

He swallowed the rest of his words with a gasp as Frank slid down, brushed his hand across the jumping skin of Billy’s stomach (ticklish), down to the waistband of the Anvil sweats they’d brought him days ago. He kissed over the sharp line of Bill’s collar, the dip of his throat, and down. He slipped his hand inside Billy’s pants, the callused pads of his fingers brushing against Billy’s thick curls, while he pressed his lips over his chest. His other hand slid down Billy’s side, cataloguing every bump of his too-exposed ribs. The fever, this whole rotten ordeal, had taken things from Billy that he really couldn’t afford to lose. His boy was always too skinny.

He was at Billy’s navel, tonguing over a bruise, his hand curling around his hardening length, when he heard the tinny voice of his past self again.

“You know what these are?”

Frank huffed. “Are you watching it again?”

“Shut up,” Billy said, voice strained as Frank began to pump him slowly. “You can’t just… just drop this on me and expect me not… not to indulge a little.” He arched into Frank’s hand.

Frank gave a single shake of his head. He’d long ago given up trying to understand the bent gear inner-workings of Billy Russo’s mind.

“Get back to work,” Billy said, cutting a quick glance down at Frank.

Billy was alive, warm and breathing under his hands as Frank pushed his pants down his narrow hips. Billy raised himself off the bed, but offered no other assistance. Frank tossed the pants aside, pressed a brief kiss at the razor line of Billy’s pelvis, before burying his face between his legs.

Billy groaned, his legs moving on either side of Frank’s head. Frank felt the brush of his thighs against his ears as he mouthed at the underside of his cock. He heard the crackle of the cell’s speakers, heard his victim screaming through them, as Billy raised his hips.

Frank.” More of a sigh than a word. “Frank, don’t… don’t you fuckin’ tease me right now. God, goddammit, Frank, you can’t—.” Voice breaking with frustration, desperation.

Billy was right, what he’d said before, although he’d been unnecessarily smug about it. Frank really did have a talent for sucking dick. He licked the bead of pre-cum from the tip of Billy’s cock, opened his mouth and swallowed him down.

Billy gasped, moaned and jumped under Frank’s hands. It was as if no one had ever touched him like this before. For a moment, Frank indulged the fantasy. A primal, alpha-dog part of him liked thinking of himself like that. As Billy’s only everything. He hollowed his cheeks as Billy thrust in his mouth.

“Fuck me, Frankie.” Of course, even a blow job couldn’t shut Billy up. “Fuck, this… this is my favourite part. Right when you can see it in his eyes. When he knows that you’re gonna do to him what—what they—. Fuck, Frank.” Voice drawn tight, snapping over Frank’s name. He heard the phone clatter onto the floor. A hand fell on the back of his head, fingers twisting in what little hair Frank kept at the top of his head.

Frank breathed out hard through his nose, pressed his tongue flat against the underside of Billy’s dick and kept moving. The adrenaline from the recent kill still singing in his veins, the knowledge that this was his and his alone. That Billy wouldn’t even let doctors touch him without cringing, but this—He’d let Frank do this. Only Frank.

“For me.” Billy gasped, planted his heels into the mattress and thrust into Frank’s mouth. “For me. You went ah…after him for me. Frank. Frank. Fuck, as soon as—as soon as my mouth heals I’m gonna—gonna suck you off. You hear me, Frankie? I’ll get on my knees for you. You did so—so good. And then you’re gonna fuck me. If you want to come, you’re gonna fuck me raw. Fuck me ’til I see stars. You’re gonna—You’re—Frank!”

Billy shouted as he came right down Frank’s open throat. The first time they’d done this, Frank had nearly choked but he’d gotten better since. He’d been trained better since. Now he could take Billy like a champ.

Billy went limp under him, all the tension that’d snapped through his long limbs leaving him in a rush. The fingers that’d tugged at Frank’s hair had turned to languidly stroking along the buzzed curve of his scalp. Frank lay quietly, lips still stretched around Billy’s softening cock, eyelids drifting shut.

He heard a man’s desperate screaming turn to choked gurgling, the noise coming from somewhere on the floor. Billy sighed.

“Fuck, I wish I could blow you right now, Frank.” His words oozed out, stretched out like another sigh. He gave Frank’s hair a small tug. “C’mon. Up.”

Frank went. He found a place to put his head in Billy’s pillow nest, just in the crook of his shoulder. The screaming on the floor wound down, gurgles becoming sobs, and then silence. Billy brought his undamaged hand back to Frank’s head, fingers twisting his short locks. He turned his head to face Frank, their noses brushing.

This was new. Even back during their service, when things were good and uncomplicated between them, they never had this. They could fuck without getting into trouble, but they could never do this. Frank had never even let himself think about Billy like this.

Tentatively, feeling like the family dog that might get booted from the bed at any moment, Frank put his arm across Billy’s waist. Billy didn’t even twitch. He drew his fingers down the curve of Frank’s scalp.

For a while, they stayed like that, breathing each other’s air. Billy’s breath smelled like the salt water rinse the doctor made him use. Frank knew he still had blood under his nails. He traced the blunt edge of his fingers over Billy’s hip.

Too skinny. He’d lost too much. There was still a part of Frank that hated how much he cared. How he felt as if it was his responsibility.

“Frank…” Billy’s voice was quiet in the space between them. “Why didn’t you kill me?”

Frank stared at Billy’s lips, tracing the red line of a recent cut with his eyes, while he tried to think of the right answer.

“Guess the Stockholm kicked in,” he said.

“Yeah, months ago,” Billy said. Frank huffed. “I ain’t stupid. That’s not what it was. You had the chance, Frank. You could’ve stuck me when you found me in that chair. You could’ve killed all my men and taken off into the night. Just now, you could’ve held a pillow over my face and walked out of here a free man. You still could.”

Frank had thought about it. He swallowed, his gaze dropping to Billy’s neck.

“But you won’t,” Billy went on, voice soft. He rubbed his thumb over the delicate shell of Frank’s ear. “Why is that?”

Frank thought about Iraq, about the first time he saw Billy’s bare shoulder blades, the twist of his spine. Watched sweat bead and sink down that curve, to the swell of his ass. He thought about ‘The Telltale Heart’ and all the pencilled annotations Billy had left for Frank’s read through. He thought about Billy’s blood swelling between his fingers, watching it bubble on his lips, and thinking, Not this one. Not this one.

This one’s mine.

“I don’t know,” Frank said, and it was and wasn’t the truth.

“I was ready for it,” Billy said. A rumble had entered his voice, shaking each word. “When I woke up in the… in the chair and I saw you, I thought. I thought ‘at least it’ll be Frank’. You know? I wasn’t happy about it but… I was ready for it.”

Frank said nothing. He pressed a soft kiss over Billy’s pulse.

Billy pushed a hard breath through his nose. He cupped the side of Frank’s face, drew his thumb across the hollow of his cheek.

“Whatever,” he said. “Soon as I’m healthy again, I’m gonna swallow you whole, you hear me? Assumin’ you don’t do anything to piss me off in the meantime. And then I’m gonna make you fuck me ‘til I can’t walk. You game, Frankie-boy?”

Frank smiled. He closed the space between them, feeling bold, and pressed a closed mouth kiss on Billy’s lips.

“Yeah. Can’t wait,” he said.