The first time Jason sees Frank, he’s four rounds deep in Banner’s homebrewed moonshine, and the man’s face doesn’t resolve into much of anything until after Jason’s blinked a handful of times. “Who the fuck is that?” Jason asks, not quiet or careful, not watchful the way he should be.
Well, he’s drunk. And Rogers’ place is as close to safe as anyone gets these days. They’ll keep him til morning, throw him out with the scraps.
“Hm,” Natasha says. She’s sharpening her knives. Seems like a hell of a thing to do at the only functional bar in a fifty-mile radius, but she’s never taken bartending very seriously. “That’s Frank Castle.”
“Frank Castle,” Jason repeats. When he blinks again, his eyes steady out a bit.
Frank Castle looks like something feral, and Jason should know what feral looks like. He’s covered in empty sheaths and holsters, looks like a toy with half the pieces missing. Jason can pick out what’s gone, if he really focuses. The rifle from his back, the pistol from his side. Two knifes from his belt, probably one from his boot.
And there’s something else, too. Empty loops on his back for something thin. A crowbar, maybe. Or an axe.
“Guy looks like a fucking asshole,” Jason announces.
Frank Castle looks his way.
The bar has ambitions, but it’s an open-air operation for now. A shed with three walls, facing out into the camp’s main courtyard. They probably used to house animals here, back when this was somebody’s farm. They’re still housing animals, Jason figures. Tonight, they’re housing him.
The point is, Frank can see him. Frank can hear everything Jason’s said about him. He eyes Jason with the same attentive focus Jason would give a deer. Like he’s worth the attention, sure, but not like he’s any kind of threat.
Behind him, Natasha sighs. “You start a fight with Frank Castle---”
“And I’m out,” Jason says. “I know, Nat. I know the rules.”
“You start a fight with a camp resident and you’re out,” she says. “You start a fight with Frank Castle, and we’ll bury you somewhere nice.”
Jason laughs, startled and smiling his way through it. Frank Castle looks like a nightmare, but Jason’s been looking at nightmares for five fucking years, and he’s been killing them, one by one, waiting to find the one that’ll wake him up.
He leans forward, elbows on his knees, and he gives Frank the kind of smile that usually provokes some kind of reaction. A fist in his face, a mouth against his. A blush, less and less, since damn near nobody’s any kind of shy anymore.
Frank Castle just blinks at him, catlike and slow, and then he looks away. When he starts walking, it’s back toward the camp entrance. It should feel like a victory, maybe, but Jason’s lost the knack of those.
They do the same work, so they see each other sometimes. There are only so many passable roads in the mountains, only so many warehouses and neighborhoods and decimated towns with salvageable supplies. He knows when Frank’s been around.
It’s an axe, Jason’s pretty sure. An axe he carries on his back. The head wounds he sees suggest something heavy and sharp. Jason and his crowbar crack skulls like eggs, all dented-in spiderwebs of bone and brain. Frank’s hits are cleaner, deeper.
Fewer, too. Frank leaves a lot of corpses walking. Jason has a higher body count, but he’s willing to admit he has a certain flair for the dramatic.
Or maybe he just feels bad. Maybe he looks at these zombies clawing at windows, shambling around like every step is an effort and a sacrifice, and he thinks it’s fucking sad. It’s a sad thing. Being dead looks like it hurts. And being alive is such an absolute bitch that Jason thinks, when it’s over, it should be over.
So he puts them down, and Frank leaves them walking. Jason can track where he’s been and what he’s after by following the neat trail of corpses that lead to and from whatever target Frank had his eyes on.
As far as actually seeing him, that’s fairly rare. Not because they don’t occasionally turn up in the same places, but because Frank doesn’t seem interested in making friends. When they end up scavenging the same area, Frank works fast and gets the fuck out. Jason usually only sees him when he’s already leaving.
So, sure. He sees him sometimes. But not as often as the campers seem to think.
“If you see Frank,” Rogers says, after Jason’s traded a backpack full of medical supplies for two nights in a halfway decent bed and all the food he can feasibly eat in forty-eight hours, “tell him to swing by. I need to talk to him.”
“If I see Frank Castle,” Jason says, “I’m gonna look the other way.”
Steve frowns at him the way he always frowns at Jason. Like Jason’s some errant schoolboy who won’t get in line. Like he’d rise to the bait, if he thought Jason was worth knocking back into his place. “Thanks,” he says, tone dry and unimpressed. “Appreciate it.”
Jason salutes him, because he knows it pisses him off. But it’s not like Steve doesn’t deserve it. Rogers’ camp is the only camp Jason knows that still flies the American flag. Like any of them are really Americans anymore. Like any of them are Goddamn anything.
“Happy to help, Cap,” he says.
He doesn’t speak to Frank for something like six months. It’s hard to tell. Jason doesn’t plant anything, sure as hell doesn’t have any weekend plans, so the days don’t mean very much to him. But he’s pretty sure he first saw Frank in winter, and it’s late spring when they exchange their first words.
Frank, in his wisdom, opens the conversation with: “Did you steal that kid?”
Jason, who’s got a shellshocky twelve-year-old on the back of his motorcyle and isn’t so much in the mood for a neighborly chat, volleys back with, “Go fuck yourself, Castle. I’m busy.”
The kid, a tousle-headed brat named Harley who tried to knife Jason in the ribs an hour or so ago, shifts behind Jason like maybe he’s going for that knife again.
“There’s been,” Frank says, “some screaming.”
There’s been an awful fucking lot of screaming. The mountains sang with it. All the noise brought a swarm of zombies down from God-knows-where, and Jason showed up late, barely made it out of that shitshow with the kid and just enough of the group’s supplies to make it worth the effort.
Jason doesn’t feel the need to explain any of that to Frank Castle. There’s blood drying on Jason’s skin, caked into his shoes. Sweat chilling on the back of his neck and all down his chest. It’s been a hell of a morning.
Frank’s blocking Jason’s path, bike perpendicular to the road, shotgun resting easy in his hands.
He wonders where the fuck Frank got a shotgun.
He wonders why the world works the way it does, where Frank Castle gets a shotgun and Jason gets a preteen with PTSD.
“I’m taking him to Rogers’ camp,” Jason says. “Will you fuck off?”
Frank stares at him. He’s shaved his head since Jason last saw him. It doesn’t make him look less feral. “I’ll go with you,” Frank says.
“Jesus fucking Christ,” Jason says, “I’m not gonna eat the kid, Castle. Nobody invited you.”
Frank puts the shotgun on his back and turns toward his bike. There’s that axe, strapped down, blade clean and sharp and bare.
“Got things to do,” Frank tells him. “Let’s go.”
Jason thinks about shooting him in the head. He can’t quite justify the waste of ammunition.
Behind him, Harley holds on too tight, leans forward to whisper too-loud in Jason’s ear. “Is that guy gonna eat us?”
“Don’t be fucking ridiculous,” Jason hisses back. “He couldn’t possibly eat both of us. He’d gorge himself sick on half of you, c’mon.”
After they drop the kid off with Steve’s people, after Harley crowds in close to Jason and has to be convinced that this is better, that these people are better, after Jason gets hosed down and changed and cleaned up to the best of his ability, Frank Castle tips his chin across the courtyard, where Nat’s tending bar again, and says, “Buy you a drink.
It’s not a request. It’s barely an offer. He says it like he’s narrating fact, and Jason’s amused enough to go along with it. After the absolute shitshow of the day he’s had, he’d put up with a lot for a free drink.
“Sure,” Jason says, “but I’m not putting out.”
Frank stares at him like he’s never seen a human before and is not sold on the experience so far.
“I mean,” Jason says, after a few long seconds of staring at Frank’s chisel-crafted cheekbones, “maybe I will. Buy me two drinks. Find out.”
Frank walks silently beside him, with a look on his face that suggests he regrets the half-assed nature of the end of the world. Jason knows what that’s like. He regrets it, too.
But Banner’s been doing some experimenting, because the moonshine Nat puts in front of him this time is almost tolerable. “Heard you saved a kid,” she says, to Jason.
It’s charming, the way she says it. Half question, like there’s a chance in hell she hasn’t already heard the entire story. Rogers might be the face of this place, but Nat’s the spider at the center of the web.
“I was just trying to scavenge,” Jason says, as he takes a bracing sip of his moonshine. Most people shoot it, but Jason’s bored enough these days that he’ll take any new stimuli he can find. Sure, it’s not pleasant. But at least it’s unpleasant in a new and interesting way. “Kid happened to be there.”
“Uh-huh,” she says. She very clearly doesn’t buy it.
“Would’ve left him,” Jason says, “but he held me at knifepoint.”
This time, she just rolls her eyes.
He doesn’t deserve any accolades, so he won’t accept them. If he’d saved more than one person, maybe he could stomach her looking at him like he’s anything other than a scavenger who let a kid tag along to the place he was going anyway. But he didn’t save more than one person. Hell, he barely saved Harley.
Mostly, Harley saved himself.
“Here.” Nat refills his cup for him.
Jason stares at it. After a beat, he looks up at her. Not once, in the years he’s been coming here, has anyone in this place given him anything for free.
“We like to reward good behavior,” she tells him.
“Fuck you,” he says, but he knocks the moonshine back before she can take it away.
This time, when she rolls her eyes, it’s with a familiar irritated disbelief. “You know,” she says, “you make yourself very difficult to love.”
Frank sits next to him, drinks a glass and a half of Banner’s moonshine, and then slides the half of a glass remaining toward Jason, who downs it immediately. He doesn’t talk. He almost doesn’t even look at Jason. So it’s weird, the way he stands up the exact same moment that Jason does, like there’s some string tied between them that he didn’t notice until Jason yanked it taut.
“I’m gonna head out,” Jason says. “Don’t like the roads after dark.”
“It’s already dark,” Natasha points out.
“Yeah,” Jason says. “So you can see how I’d be disinclined to hang around waiting for it to get darker.”
Frank just stares at him. He doesn’t say anything. It’s weirding Jason out, a little. Dumping adrenaline into his system that could twist any number of ways.
“So stay with Frank,” Natasha says.
Jason wishes, for the fiftieth time, that he could read Natasha Romanoff at all. “Yeah, that’s what I’m gonna do. Go up to a murder cabin in the middle of the night with some guy who carries an axe.”
“I have a place here,” Frank tells him. It’s the first thing he’s said directly to Jason since they got to the bar.
I have a place here.
They never let Jason stay past dawn after the night he’s paid for. He brings supplies, and they ration out time. And he sleeps on cots, in hallways, wherever there’s space and no one to mind.
But Frank Castle has a place here.
Jason can’t fucking believe it.
“Why the hell do you get a place?” Jason turns to Nat, holds up his hands. “What the shit, Romanoff?”
She just smiles, mean and sweet all at once. “You’re the only one keeping yourself on the outside, Jason.”
Like it’s that Goddamn easy. Like she doesn’t know damn well why he’s never signed up to move in.
“Fine,” he says, to Frank. Partly because he wants to. Partly because he likes the idea of staying here without paying a damn thing. “Show me your place.”
It’s a small cabin, off by itself. Empty and lonely and with nothing personal in it at all, except for some picture frames that are lying facedown on the bedside table. Jason thinks about turning them over, but Frank gets a look on his face like a cornered rattlesnake, and, sometimes, Jason doesn’t need to get bit to know something’s poison.
So he leaves the pictures where they are and strips down as he walks the five feet from the door to the bed. “We fucking?” he asks, just to get a general temperature of the room.
Frank considers the bed like he thinks it’ll be disappointed in him. “You want to?”
It’s a weird question. It knocks Jason sideways, somehow, derails him. Does he want to.
He wants the world back. He wants to wake up in Gotham. He wants the future he was promised by every day of the past that led up to the moment when every single promise evaporated in a spray of blood and brain matter and horror.
He wants the people he failed. He wants the compound that died. He wants to sleep without seeing them, the befores and the afters, the mess that got made out of all the people he promised to protect.
He wants to stop fighting. He wants to fight the whole fucking world.
He wants so many things that they’ve clotted over, the beat of his heart dulled out and dumb, only the anger seeping through, only that endless, mouthless rage.
“Yeah,” he says, because there’s so much he can’t have, so he might as well have this. And he doesn’t know what it’ll be like, doesn’t know what to expect, but it’s new. It’s not yesterday. And he can’t survive another Goddamn yesterday, so he’ll take whatever it is, take any new thing he can find.
“Okay,” Frank says.
Jason breathes out, throws his shirt on the bed, stands his ground. There’s no reason for Frank to kiss him like he’s coaxing him into anything, but he does.
Frank’s scarred up, same as him. Not the shiny skin of fresh scars, although there’s a handful of those on both of them. The world wasn’t gentle with Frank even before it overran with shambling corpses, and Jason can read that in the circular scar of an old bullet wound on Frank’s shoulder, the long thin lines on his forearms, the marks on his knee left by some surgeon, cleaning up a wreck.
Jason doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing. He wants to leave, afterwards, but he can’t make himself go.
He’s thinking about those screams from before. He’s thinking about Harley, up a tree.
Someone put him there. One of the adults Jason was too late to do anything for. No branches low enough, no way to climb. Someone knew what was coming, saw the end, and spent their last living seconds putting that kid on their shoulders so he could climb high enough to survive.
Maybe more than one of them. Maybe they did it together, their last collective act before they all died alone.
It’s bullshit, he thinks. The choices people make out of the options they have. All this courage packed in bodies that aren’t strong enough to fight. Jason’s no better than any of them, worse than most of them, and he’s alive, and they aren’t.
Well, Harley’s alive too.
Probably the kid would’ve died up there if Jason hadn’t come down to clear the zombies out. Probably he would’ve gotten weaker and weaker until he fell, and then they would’ve done what they were always going to do.
“Why the fuck do they let you stay here?” he asks.
Castle’s got a cabin in the mountains, somewhere. Same as Jason. He doesn’t live here. He doesn’t belong to Steve Rogers. But they gave him a cabin anyway, like leaving a bed out for a stray cat, hoping he’ll get so accustomed to the place that he’ll forget he doesn’t belong.
Frank’s pressed up behind him, has an arm around his waist. “They’d let you, too,” he says.
If he agreed to shifts on watch. If he promised to help fight.
There are people here, soft and delicate, and they need people like him.
Maybe he needs people like them, too. Maybe these years on his own have just been a slow hemorrhage.
Every feral thing was domesticated, once. Maybe all strays are meant to come home.
“This place,” Jason says, “is gonna get overrun. They’re all gonna die.”
He’s known that end. He saw it. He picked through a graveyard, tried to find enough to bury.
“Probably,” Frank says.
But probably isn’t a prophecy or a promise. It’s just a statistical likelihood. And what’s the likelihood of Jason finding a kid in a tree? What are the odds of that?
It’s just sandcastles, he thinks. This whole place. All of it. Every single thing they build.
Maybe you have to build anyway.
“You always think so loud?” Frank asks. And Jason would be offended, would get snappy and defensive and mean, but he doesn’t sound like he’s judging. Mostly, he sounds like he’s trying to sleep and the caught gears of Jason’s mind are keeping him awake.
“Give me something else to think about,” Jason says.
Frank laughs, low and creaking and stuttering. Laughs like someone who’s almost forgotten how.
Jason listens for a second, lets it reverberate in his chest, lets his body remember how. And then he turns, buries his face in Frank’s neck, and he laughs too.