Chapter 1: Saturday
They find her floating naked in deep waters, just before sunrise.
There is bruising along her neck and dark purple handprints trailing down her arms when Frank manages to fish her out. She's breathing, albeit with water in her lungs - the wheeze in their ears loud and bubbly. David turns, already disappearing into the stairway to reach below deck, calling to wake Curtis.
He notes the blue shade of her lips and the way her blonde hair drapes over his arm like silk before settling her on the bow of the ship. Two of the vets still have their eyes on her, and he hurries to remove his coat to cover her from further scrutiny. “Back to work,” he barks. “Yeah? Go away from us.”
“She okay?” Jimbo is dancing from foot to foot, his chin lifted towards her legs. Frank spots a trail of cracked and dry, red skin along her bruised thighs and over her knees. It flakes away in bubbling layers of half moons down her calves.
He turns to look at the remaining vets on deck before sighing. His mouth is set flat before he nods his head in a direction of get outta here, a hand pressing the coat flush to the fiberglass floor beside her. “I'll let you know after Curtis gets a look at her, all right?”
“Why's it always something with you?” Curtis grumbles quietly, waving Frank back. He sets down his medkit and rubs at the corners of his eyes before shaking his head, lowering to his good knee and giving the woman a brief scan over her face for additional injuries. She is still wheezing. “Why's it always gotta be when I'm trying to sleep, huh? Hey, miss?” He snaps his fingers briefly by her ear. “Can you hear me?”
Curtis moves the heavy jacket off from her shoulders a little when she doesn't respond, and Frank watches as the crease in his forehead appears to deepen. In the early light, they can see the bruise across her neck a bit more clearly. Deep shades of purples and blues trail across her throat and as he takes away her cover, Curtis’ fingers hover slightly over the slope down her arms. He meets Frank's eye and makes a fist, his thumb poking out, his right hand crossing over to compare the plum-sized markings. “Christ,” Frank mutters softly. She was held before this, and held hard.
“Get her below,” Curtis commands, now locking his kit and prepping to stand, waving a finger over her chest. “She's got water in there, and I need the kitchen table for this.”
Frank lifts the woman once more, careful to avoid the rash on her legs because god knows what that's about, but it looks painful nonetheless. David reappears to hold the door open and her right arm drops from its place on her stomach and swings loose. He gets them down the steps and quickly through the short metal hallway before he can feel a deep vibration against the arm on her back.
“Shh, shh, shh,” he starts, wedging the kitchen door open with a boot and spotting Curtis shaking out one of his shirts. She is stirring - eyes squinting against the overhead light, her mouth opening in a grimace, a low and painful whine escaping. “Hey, hey.” Her hand comes up to grip at his, nails clawing into her own waist as she tries to get out of his hold from under the coat. “Easy,” he tells her, and sets her down on the table.
The woman’s legs pump wildly a few times when he lets her go and Curtis catches her foot before his prosthetic is kicked out from under him. “Hey, ey hey,” he shouts, a hand out to placate her. His training is kicking in. “You're okay, okay?”
“Go,” she gasps, mouth opening wide and baring her teeth, “go, go.”
“You're safe,” Frank says loudly, catching her left hand mid-swing in his direction. “Curt's gonna check you over,” he tells her, only now noticing the familiar red stains across her knuckles and down her wrist.
“She's in shock, Frank,” Curtis says.
“You,” Frank tries, and it's weak and hesitant as he spots the burgundy-brown shade deep beneath her nail beds. God, what happened to her, he wonders.
“I go,” she repeats roughly.
“ Stop - hey. Listen to me, all right? You were practically dead in the water.”
Her blue eyes are wide as they track his and fall to the spot his fingers have wrapped around her hand to meet her palm. She's still breathing fast, bubbles popping in her chest as Curtis lets her know he's a medic, and they're nowhere near land for her to go anywhere else.
She lets out a soft, eerie wail between breaths and reaches up to gently touch her throat with her free hand. “C’mon,” Curtis says to her pitifully, releasing her foot when she finally stills. “Let me check you out, okay? Then you can rest up.” It's reminiscent of how he spoke to Frank when he convinced him to take this trip instead of trying to isolate himself in the lighthouse he's taken residence in for yet another weekend. I know you hate fishing, man, just - come out with us. Get some sun. It'll be good for you.
She locks up in his grip and Frank instantly starts to rub a thumb over the back of her hand to soothe her before realizing it. Her eyes squeeze shut, and her face turns towards him, into the crook of her raised arm at the motion. She rips herself from his hold with a huff after a moment and he has to take a step back when she settles her palm onto the table between them. “You got this?” he thinks he asks Curtis, feeling a bit lost for a minute, the familiar rush in his ears getting loud. Memories of late night whispers and soft hands in his hair after a nightmare flood to the front of his mind and he needs to just stop gasping for air, god, how long has it been now?
The jacket falls away as Curtis cautiously helps her into the large tee in his hands. Her steely gaze does not stop following Frank around the room until he settles in the dinner chair he’s since dragged into the corner, a hand coming up to rub at his eyes.
“Frank, where are you right now? Don't -” Curtis’ head whips back and forth from the blonde on the kitchen table to him, fingernails gripping at the longer ends on his stubbled cheek, eyes shut, head shaking side to side. “Goddamnit Frank, I need you here.”
“Here,” the woman echoes. It is angry and tired and her tone sounds just like him all at once - and then she coughs loud and wet, droplets of water spilling down her chin and onto her shirt. Curtis quickly grabs for a dishtowel from the small counter beside the sink - with a small triumphant sound in his nose - and hands it out to her. It drops onto her lap and she hisses painfully at him when it rubs against the growing rash on her thighs. One of her hands swipe in his direction. “Go.”
“Frank,” Curtis grinds through his teeth, taking a step back from the table.
“Yeah,” he mutters after taking another breath. His hand races across his jaw and up the side of his face before he looks in their direction, away from his thoughts. “Yeah, I know.” The woman wipes at her mouth with the back of her hand as she leans away from Curtis, trailing a rusty red stain across her cheek. “Hey,” he tells her softly, shaking his head slowly and finally getting to his feet again. “Don't, don't do that. You gotta -”
He points to the towel within her reach and watches as a bloody fist brushes it off of her and towards him, her gaze hard. It falls to the floor at his feet and he chucks it at Curtis.
“Gotta clean yourself up, all right?” He's staring at her hands again, dried blood caked between her fingers, even. His eyes trail up her arms, noting the handprints marking the inside of her elbows, the bruises and the dark rash climbing up to disappear under the shirt to her shoulders. Curtis hands him the towel again - this time damp - over her knees. Scuffs and rocky scrapes cover spots where the bubbling rash hasn't reached. The half-moon layers of flaky skin on her calf are covered in shiny blue and green bruises.
The six of them have been on open waters for less than twelve hours since leaving from the docks the night before. It was supposed to be a pretty easy weekend for them on the ship - an older commercial fishing vessel Curtis had inherited from his family. He looks her over, and can’t even recall if he had been able to see shore at all when he spotted her pale body appear on the port side. Frank suspects this is not going to be easy in any sense of the word.
He raises the rag in his grip tentatively, motioning towards the blood streak on her face. Her eyes briefly narrow at the towel but she doesn't shy away when he starts to wipe away the stain. His fingers are gentle as she allows him to come closer and hold her jaw still, settling his thumb on the butt of her chin.
Her gaze follows the cloth as it moves and her nose twitches like a bunny when it gets too close. It feels out of place right now to chuckle, but the silent bubble of it climbs up through his chest anyway. As the towel drags across her face his eyes track the way her lips worry together, the cold blue disappearing, a waking of bright pink color flushing her mouth.
Curtis lines the counter beside him with bandages and ointments from his medkit, muttering to himself as he digs.
When he gets the red off her cheek, Frank moves to lift and clean the hand closest to him. She pulls back before he can reach. Stubborn, he thinks lightly, but he keeps his hand out in wait, the towel in the other. She stares at it, then at him. Her eyes have turned a shade of dark blue in the fluorescent kitchen lighting, and he watches as they trace his face, pausing on his nose and then up towards his hairline. Her gaze then levels with his.
The damp cloth turns cold by the time she lifts her chin, her chapped lip jutting out just a tad. She huffs quick and looks around the room, wary attention on Curtis’ back, on the door to the hall, on the way the waves slap against the ship's window. Her eyes meet Frank's again as she then slowly places her hand into his, linking their fingers.
“ Jesus Christ, look at you.”
“Look at you,” she whispers with just as much wonder.
He leaves to get her some pants. She had tracked him as he moved around the room after he could finally scrub the blood away from her wrists. He knew she couldn't leave the kitchen without them, needing to only glance once at the length of her shirt and how it pooled shortly over her thighs as she continued to sit on the table. She is just as tall as he is.
The amount of blood gathered on that dishrag, her knuckles, god, they all should be concerned with how she happened upon them. Where it all happened before he spotted her drifting too close. Fuck, what happened. An unconscious woman, he thinks, by herself in the water. On a fishing boat in the middle of the ocean - however many miles away now they are from land - full of some pretty fucked up vets, goddamnit, the sight of her on that deck. The bruises, the peeling skin, the blood -
He leaves to get her some pants.
“She all right?” David is leaning in the doorway to the four-bunk bedroom they both shared with Curt. A forearm rests high on the frame, his thumb pointing behind him towards the kitchen. He's been hovering.
Frank knows he's got a pair of sweats with him to sleep in and can't for the life of him remember where he tossed them when he woke up. There's a scramble to grab his duffel under the bunk and he takes a peek at David before he tosses it onto the mattress and unzips to rifle through it. “Hey, uh, do me a favor, all right?” Toiletry bag, boxer briefs, his knit beanie, a couple pairs of boot socks, some long sleeve shirts, god, fuck -
“What are you doing?”
“Can you go check the radar?” Frank asks sharply, pushing, pointing in the general direction of the comms and control room, now flipping the pillow on the bed to look beneath, revealing his gun. “For the uh, closest ships,” he says as he doesn't think further about it - checking the magazine, then for one in the chamber - tucking it into his jeans.
“Frank , ” David says quickly, his eyes uncertain as he steps into the room, a hand rising to scratch through his floppy hair.
“The distance from shore,” he continues, roughly sliding a hand beneath the comforter. “Any, in any direction, yeah? The hell are they?”
“What are you looking for?”
“My goddamn,” he breathes through his nose, standing to look back at him. “My sweats. I wore'em last night.”
David shakes his head briefly. “That's not exactly what I meant.” He nods his head once anyway and points to the ladder to the top bunk, his bunk, where Frank's gray pair is folded neatly over a rung. With a tight thanks, he pulls them off and shakes them out. “Hey,” he's calling him back, “is she okay?”
He leaves to get her some pants.
She's eating some of their catch from the night before when he makes his way back to the kitchen.
With bare hands.
Picking a thin bone from her teeth and flicking it away.
It clatters across the floor towards him like a skipping stone and Frank drops his boot over it to stop it. Her ass is still bare to the kitchen table as fish meat falls in chunks onto her lap. Frank looks to Curtis, who is pinching the bridge of his nose from the seat he's previously vacated, defeat written all over his face.
“She said she was hungry,” he tells him plainly.
“You couldn't make a peanut butter sandwich or something?” She tosses another bone away and he can hear it touch the ground as she picks and chews at some fallen pieces on her shirt. “Had to go and give her a whole fish?”
Curt's arm raises in her direction, his voice low as Frank peeks at her. “Didn't give me much of a chance to cook it.” He wrings the sweatpants in his hands and wipes his face briefly, stepping closer to her. She's managed to pluck another bone from the head of the carcass, this time setting it down beside her. “Snatched it right outta my hands. Frank, something isn't right, here.” Her legs are dangling off the edge of the table now, swinging lightly by her ankles. “You guys found her out there in the water, right?”
He sets the pants down beside her with a pat and he watches as she wipes at her mouth with the back of her hand, a pleasant and tiny hum in her chest as she swallows and follows his arm. “I got you these.”
Frank turns to look back at Curtis. He's trying to figure the next thing to say, trying to not think of where his mind could be heading, because Curt can usually be right about most things, nowadays, and he always gets that smug look on his face when -
The blonde takes a heap of fish from her lap and thrusts it below his nose, a tiny smile curling at the edge of her lip. “Ahh,” he groans, taking a step back. His arm automatically comes up in defense, holding her wrist away, avoiding where the chunk falls from her grasp and by his boots. Their eyes meet and hers narrow as if in challenge. “No no,” he says as he releases her with a small chuckle and steps away, “thank you.”
“Frank.” Curtis is behind him now, a hand over his mouth as she begins expertly ripping the small, thin skull from the rest of the meat. It comes away with fish bits still attached, and Frank watches with fascinated horror as she briefly puts it into her mouth as if it were a kid’s lollipop and it comes out clean. “Frank, look,” Curtis’ hand waves over the expanse of her left thigh after the shock wears off, where the spots of blue and green bruises lay.
Except they aren't just bruises. Just below the flaky pink and irritated red skin lies a layer of iridescent scales, a blue oil slick in tone, if Frank could label it anything. His eyes trail over her knees and down her legs in wonder, catching the shimmer growing beneath - and for a moment he forgets everything he's ever learned about the ocean.
“We've dealt with... with aliens from outer space in the city before, Frank,” Curtis mutters quietly beside him. “Something like this ain't so far off.”
“ Goddamnit.” He hates when he's always right.
A finger touches just under his chin and lifts his face - she's looking at him again. Her thumb traces his jaw, nails raking into the short scruff growing on his cheeks. It sends a tingle through his teeth and down into his shoulder and he can't hear anything in his right ear - Jesus, Curtis backs away - as she pets him a few times with the back of her fingers. He goes to stand straight and her hand follows for a second before dropping back to her lap when he moves out of her reach. “Frank,” she says. It's a whisper when she leans forward, like a secret she wants to share.
“Yeah, yeah that's me,” he tells her softly. “That's my name, what's yours?”
He watches as she tips her chin up. The very real and actual bruises still lining her neck are such a contrast to the pale pink color of her cheeks. His fingers twitch, trigger finger alive and ready as it taps against his thigh. Christ, what happened to her. Frank has to hold his own hand before he can tuck it into a pocket to make it all stop. He can see her catch the motion but she merely smiles with her teeth.
Mermaid teeth, he thinks briefly, incredulously. Sharp in places he hadn't been able to notice before when she was scrambling to escape.
Curtis later convinces her to rest and heal.
Karen's hand grips the back of Frank's shirt at his neck as the two of them help her down off the table and she wiggles into the sweatpants. He has to hold his breath for a moment when she catches a finger along the back of his ear as she releases him to stand on her own. His tongue goes numb at her caress.
At one point soon after, her ankle rolls from underneath her as they move out from the kitchen and he grabs at her arm without thinking to stop her fall. A loud, unnatural screech from her throat echoes in the hallway and Frank has to swear through an apology when he lets go.
Her skin holds the ghost-white imprint of his hand for just a moment longer, her breath quick as she turns away, and Curtis shakes his head when he opens the heavy door to their room. “Land legs,” he laughs to himself, his tone filled with unease when he avoids her stare. Karen clicks her jaw at the sound as she makes her way inside the room.
Frank watches her palm rest against the metal bunk frame, sliding it across and rubbing at the tan comforter hanging off the side of David’s bed up on top. She even leans in to sniff it before reaching to touch the water-tight metal frame of the window.
“Better, here,” she mutters after a moment of quiet, and peers at them in the doorway with a satisfied look in her eye. Her breathing is slower now - calm - chest rising with her shoulders. She reaches over and touches Frank's pillow, squishing it hard between her fingers as she sits down on his mattress.
He takes a second to look around. There are two sets of metal bunks on either side of the tiny bedroom. A caged light overhead is old and rusted, swaying and flickering when the ship rocks too harshly. The one lonely porthole nearest his side of the room is left grimy and green with some kind of fuzzy moss Leo brought with her from science class the last time she and her brother were invited. Curtis couldn't scrub it off, and it brings in any sunshine under a grassy cover now. Her words linger in his head as the cot mattress bends under her weight. Better. This was absolute shit.
Her hand hesitantly pets at the wool blanket folded at the end of his bed and his chest tightens at the infinite, unanswered what-if scenarios running across his mind. If a thin-as-paper mattress is better, if she’s fascinated by the light reflected through a goddamned window, what the hell had she been dealing with before?
There's a clatter of shoes upon the metal stairs leading from the deck above and both men turn to see David frantically waving torn computer feed paper high in his grasp. “Hey, uh…” He gestures above. “Hey, can we talk about something here… I -”
Curtis makes the first move out of the room, smacking at Frank's chest as he tells her, “We'll be back later, okay? I gotta change your bandages after this.”
If it’s better here, he thinks - decision made - he’s gonna know all about there. “You and me are gonna have a conversation,” Frank points at her. She's going to tell him everything about the blood, about the bruises. All he wants right now are the names of whatever assholes that could have left her to die, to drown out there in the water. He can recall her whine, the protest of the steps in his process to help, his fingernails trying to dig and clean beneath her own. They stay left alone - still dingy and brown and blood encrusted. The weight of his gun against his hip bone now feels heavy with purpose.
Karen carefully lifts her legs to her chest and curls up on the opposite side of the bed against the wall. She nods tiredly. The hair that's beginning to dry on her scalp falls across her cheek like sunlight as she settles. “Before I go, yeah.” She yawns. Her eyes follow him as he steps back, away into the hall, a knuckle hitting the door when he fumbles to reach the handle and close it. He catches her smiling at the move, at him - brief and shy - and she ducks the side of her face into the crook of her elbow as the door shuts.
He has to stop himself from the ease of it, from smiling back -
“Frank, buddy, let's go!”
“- and there's a couple of them out there just circling some tidal islands.” David points in a sweeping motion over the horizon and away from the direction of shore. He adjusts himself in the captain's chair, taking a long swig of coffee.
The late morning sun reveals no ships to the eye, but Frank has checked over the radar again. They're at least 30 miles out from the island of Manhattan. The pinging on the console tells him that the calculated, collective movement of ships making the rounds across the city - they're all looking for something.
“Why is this even important?” David sets his notes down within Frank's reach and rubs at his beard with a yawn. “What are we looking for? Whatever it is, wanna just call Captain Madani?” He nudges at Curtis with a chuckle when he shakes his head, and the other man sucks his teeth, knock it off. “Is that girl okay? Is she awake yet?”
“We're not bringing in the Coast Guard for this, Lieberman, c'mon,” Frank tells him, peering out the window overlooking the bow, waving a hand to drop the idea. “She's gonna be fine.”
He can see the vets sitting lazily on deck, lures in the still water now that they've temporarily stopped. Jimbo’s legs are crossed over the railing and his fishing rod is tucked under his arm. Manny is sprawled across the lounge chair next to him, a book open on his chest, his mouth open in sleep. Terry paces port to starboard bow, lighting a cigarette.
“Day one, right?” Curtis says, crossing his arms and sighing. “Let's just move on, all right, get some fish. Shoot the shit with these guys. Take the girl home when she's good.” He takes a hard look at Frank, his mouth thin and jaw set. He doesn't want to spread the fact around to the others that the girl isn't really a girl.
But Curtis won't say that. They haven't even said the word out loud yet - and David should know, with the way his paranoia goes. He'd try to call Dinah if he doesn't know. That would bring more attention to their little outing than Frank really wants right now.
Just as he lifts his head to tell him so, a hand smacks against the glass from outside and gets their attention. “Hey! Hey, quit dicking around up there, could ya? Something's out here,” Terry shouts, jumping once more to reach the tall window.
The three of them lean over the console to see what is the cause. Jimbo is yanking harshly on his fishing lure, and Manny - now awake - is halfway across the rail, reaching. His foot hooks under the dock cleat as he bends.
It's almost noon. Day one, Frank thinks tiredly.
They pull a corpse from the water.
The first thing they notice is the suit. It's expensive, a once-soft black material with a fine silver threaded pinstripe. Some of the buttons have been ripped off.
The second thing they take note of is that it's in tatters. Blood spatter is a pink watercolor painting across the remains of the white dress shirt he wears underneath. Jimbo's hook had been lodged deep into the man's pasty gray cheek and Frank has to yank the kid's shoulder back to prevent him from lowering to his knees to grab for it.
They have to call Dinah. Frank knows it. He looks at Curtis and he knows he knows it too. David nervously grabs at the unbrushed tufts of hair hanging off his forehead and groans low, breathing through his teeth. “We uh…”
Small shards of glass are wedged through one of his eyes but it's the seven separate sets of claw marks that lift the man’s skin from his chest that Frank focuses on most. They are long, and deep enough that he can nearly count the ribs exposed from it. They are long, and deep enough to remind him of the sleeping woman below deck with blood dried beneath her fingernails.
Manny actually mimes his hand as a claw slowly over the body, his eyes unblinking. There’s a collective inhale between them. Frank steps back. Runs a hand across his cheek and into the crew cut of his hair. “I'm gonna head back,” he tells them with another step, glancing at Curtis, “I uh,” Frank points to David. “Call... call Madani.”
Those marks aren't relative to any fish or shark he knows of. If this guy had been mauled by a bear and dropped into the ocean later that'd make more sense, but even still. The angry gashes are too close to be a paw. Manny was right.
“I'm coming in,” Frank tells her when he gets to the bedroom. The metal creaks loud with a rusty whine as he opens the door. She's curled in on herself but sits up with alert as he quickly steps inside and shuts it tight behind him.
Karen's grip on his comforter releases and she scoots to the edge. “Conversation, Frank?”
“Yeah,” he says hurriedly, leaning his back against the cool metal. Nothing in or out, he thinks. His feet stand apart and he's aware of how she swings her hair now, the dirty, browning nails grasping to bring it all over to one side of her neck. “Yeah, time for a conversation.”
The bruises he can see on her arms have faded. They're a bit on the lime green and yellow side of healing, and the ones covering her neck have lessened significantly as well. His right hand lifts to point at them but he lowers it just as fast. It's only been a few hours.
“Why were you out there?” Frank doesn’t think she’s got much of any reason to trust him, but he tries for it regardless. The way she looks his way, however, the way her mouth is set flat and resolved, she’s already come to her decision about him. “What happened to you?”
“I was weak. I couldn't go home,” she tells him. Her hand wraps around a rung on the ladder beside her and strokes it with her thumb, avoiding his gaze. Her voice is smooth now, against her first words on the boat, but they’re filled with anger. Frank tilts his head to catch her eye, a clench of his jaw evident when she huffs. She stares at her toes and wiggles them a few times, eyes narrowing. “I'd been trying to get back when you found me.”
Karen says this as if it were a normal occurrence that she floats naked in open waters, covered in blood. Frank watches as she wraps her arms around her legs and buries her chin between her knees.
“You saw me.” It's a shaky declaration as she says it, but her teeth are bared, as if she is frustrated with the fact. She starts to rock herself on the mattress. “I was seen before. They caught me, too.”
He waves his hand around his neck, and her eyes follow the move. “They do all that?” Karen breathes out, looks around the room before she carefully places the balls of her bare feet on the floor. She nods. Something shifts in his head. “Who are they?”
“Bad men.” Her fingers rub against the bumps in her knees before she wraps her arms around herself. She worries her lip like before, her eyes closing.
He almost matches her soft whisper, but he can hear himself get a bit demanding. “How did you escape?” She stays quiet. “Listen I - I gotta know this, all right? I can't let you go if I don't know.” Frank’s trigger finger reacts against his belt and she follows it briefly before standing to move to the porthole. He holds it still. “I need to know if you're involved with what just happened up on deck.”
Karen's got her own stroking curiously at the moss on the window and it freezes. When she turns around, her eyes are narrowing in challenge. Frank recognizes the assessment she gives him as she crosses her arms and stands with her own feet apart. She’s mocking his stance. Her tongue darts in her cheek, but he's already made the decision to make her admit to it.
“If you just tell me what happened, I can keep you safe,” he says softly. “Something’s going on out there. There's ships out, they’re looking for something. That guy we found, he -”
“He's dead,” Karen grits through her teeth. Her fingers tug at the sleeve of her shirt, a spiral made as she twists, her knuckles white. “Dead, dead. Gone.” He watches as her chin lifts and her jaw moves to the side before she speaks again. Her eyes lower to her hands, but the way her shoulders sharply drop makes him think this is relief for her. “He can't hurt anymore.”
Frank nods to agree. “Who was he? C’mon, tell me what he did.” She looks hesitant, flickering her eyes around the room again. She paces, her hand over her mouth with a slight shake. “What do you think?” He raises his voice only slightly. They’ve got to figure out their next plan of action. “What is it, huh? You think I’ll throw you back in where we found you? Is that it? Because that isn't what's gonna be happening right now.”
She perks up as he speaks. There's a split second where he's distracted by the way her mouth lifts in a smile, then quickly changes into a flash of irritation. He knows he’s being an asshole. He tightens a fist and pushes it into the side of his leg. Focus, Frank.
He points to the ceiling, towards Curtis and David and the rest of them. “They gotta call the police about it. They're gonna end up sending search parties out for more clues and all that bullshit. They could find you, if you’re still out there." He watches her fingers flex quickly as he points again. "Do you wanna risk that?” Karen’s teeth click. “Are you up for that?"
“They can't know,” she says then, stepping forward. “It's too many already. I can't -”
He drops his chin to his chest and thinks maybe it's good that David wasn't in the room with them earlier. Curt might still tell him, though, to keep her situation out of his mouth when Dinah comes later with her crew. He doesn't want to break that to her.
“A man grabbed me from the water,” she explains. “You see me, Frank,” she repeats. “He saw me too, saw me as I am. But he held me down, kept me in the cage.” Karen slowly rubs her left hand over her thigh, another shaky breath leaving her mouth. The other runs through her blonde hair, twisting it away from her sight. “He, they… they pulled at me. My scales, he took my scales.” Her throat echoes a small whine when she turns away from him, lowering herself slowly to the ground by his bed. She keeps rubbing at her leg. “I saw four sunsets when I got to move. They let me swim in a… they called it fishbowl, I think.”
“Jesus Christ,” Frank mutters. He slides his back on the door to sit on the ground with her. It’s the dirt and the gravel that dig sharply into the lines of his palms that remind him of how she had looked at them in the doorway earlier. Calm, settled, happier. Better, here.
“The man you have up there isn't the man who found me,” Karen glances at him, and her mouth lifts in the corner, her shoulders shrugging. She hisses in pain, hand up instantly, clutching at what he knows is a bruise. Her voice turns hard. “But he works for him. He was there. Every day. Made sure I stay put, and stay still. He told me if I ever managed to get away, he’d find a way to hurt everyone I ever cared about.” Frank watches her stare down at her toes again, her eyebrows furrowing as she wiggles them slowly. “He deserved more than what I gave him. The bastard drowned first.”
“Sounds like it,” he says, tilting his head and plucking a piece of lint from his knee. “What's next, then?”
Karen is silent as she turns her head and he feels her look him over. Frank knows she's hearing his easy, nonchalant acceptance, and she bites her bottom lip and squints. In this moment, he would tell her why, if she asked. He would tell her what he's done.
The energy in the room feels charged. Hair on his neck stands at attention as their eyes meet again. She's murdered a man - a man she clearly had not hesitated with doing so, if the depth of his wounds mean anything. A man she could have enjoyed killing again. Frank knows the feeling.
“Fisk,” she reveals. It's not a what, it seems, but a who. “His name is Mr. Fisk.”
They have an hour or so to get their story straight.
Karen wears Frank's heavy black cargo coat and someone’s tacky green rain boots after Curtis gets her to finally scrub away the rest of the blood beneath her fingernails. Her mouth opens, nose wrinkling, but the duress is evident on Curt’s face and Frank thinks that's enough for her to turn the faucet on.
He leaves them as Captain Dinah Madani arrives on deck. David carefully wraps a thick, wool pink scarf - another left-behind gift by Leo - around Karen's neck to hide the bruising. She sticks close to him as they wander the small control room. Frank watches the bow from the window.
“She may or may not want to talk to you,” David warns her hesitantly, connecting the zipper on her jacket. “We’ve all been in her crosshairs before this, and you're fresh meat.”
Frank chokes on a laugh.
Curtis directs her crew as they follow her out, pointing off to the starboard side of the bow where they've left the body alone. He can hear the two of them greet each other in clipped tones but the blush creeping on the back of Madani's neck can be seen from his place at the console when Curt smiles lightly. His arm goes up as he says something, and her face turns to follow it, spotting him in the window. Her mouth twitches and she sighs under the shadow of her cap, her eyes flickering to his left.
Karen sways from foot to foot as she keeps her own watch on the dead man in the suit. A few officers in windbreakers take short statements from Manny, Jimbo and Terry.
“Frank,” Dinah calls tiredly, muted enough by the glass. Her hand resting at her hip drops free and then waves at them to come down. “Everyone's gotta make a statement.”
They do this song and dance every once in a while, so her tone is expected. With Frank working and living in the lighthouse off the coast in Hell’s Kitchen this does play a factor sometimes, but it only ever started after they had found the man in charge of a large drug operation shot to shit on the rocks surrounding his home a few years back.
However blatant or mysterious that particular death could have seemed, Dinah didn't fight him on it. The bullets left in that man weren't from any weapon Frank had registered in his possession. If the gun just so happened to have been found days later in shallow waters, away from the current, so it goes - and it solved some open cases they've had to pass to the NYPD.
She’s leaning in towards Curtis as the three of them make their way out of the room and down below. Karen keeps a hand on the wall to steady herself as Frank leads them, and when they hit the landing she moves to his side with wary steps in her new boots.
“Madani, hey, always a pleasure,” Frank says. His arms are open in passive greeting but she rolls her eyes at him.
“Knock it off, Castle. You wanna tell me anything different about this?”
“Ahh,” he groans loudly. Karen smiles beside him, her eyes crinkling. He takes a quick look at her, a little confused at her amused expression, before shaking his head. “We were shooting the shit upstairs, you know? Me and Curt and David, when the kid hooked him.” He shrugs. Can’t lie about that.
Dinah sighs, looking then to Karen, her hand out to shake. “Sorry, I'm Captain Dinah Madani. These are unfortunate circumstances to meet under. What’s your name, where were you in all of this?”
David coughs to clear his throat, elbowing her in the arm. It rises without a beat to meet Madani's, and she nods with a tiny, closed mouth smile. “I am uh… I was sleeping. I'm Karen.”
The story is a simple one, if the Captain before them were to ask why the blonde is here. Frank can see Madani squint against the sunlight for a moment. It’s midday, and she frowns -
Frank wraps his arm around Karen’s thin shoulders and pulls her in. He's careful not to squeeze through the jacket when he hooks her waist. “Only time I get a chance to bring her out here, and now there's a goddamn body on deck,” he shakes his head to scoff. “Moment we get back, right, hit the docks? I'm probably never gonna see this one again. Scarred her for life.”
“I'm sure there'll be other reasons,” Curtis says a little too seriously. Madani chuckles anyway. Frank feels Karen's left hand rest high on his chest, radiating warmth. It’s gentle - the tips of her fingers cradle in the hollow of his collarbone.
Her eyes drop from gazing at his cheek to her fingers, and they spread slowly over his heart. Frank thinks this could just be her playing the part with this new and unprompted touch - the affectionate, feeling his heartbeat - but the thought doesn't escape him that it could also be where she started when she murdered the suit. His hand blindly covers hers to still her movement, and he interlocks their hands on his chest, gripping hers tight.
“You confirm ID on this guy, yet?” David asks. “We're barely halfway now to where we gotta be to get -”
“Lieberman,” Madani’s eyes narrow, her fist tight. “It's a body. This guy was a person, give a little -”
Frank does not miss when he feels Karen lock up.
“Uh, yeah.” There's a crew member digging in the remains of the suit pockets with gloves, sliding down the corpse to the pants. He barely locates a wallet before he nods his head a few times. “Yeah, this is James Wesley.” It's dripping and still carrying seaweed when he's able to wiggle it out from under his butt, checking the license. “Wilson Fisk put that missing persons report out yesterday, remember?” The guy shakes his head slowly, hands at his side as he stands. “God, Captain, he's gonna be so torn up about this.”
“Nice. Nice pun, Sam. Thanks.”
There's a quick, angry hiss escaping from Karen's throat before Frank realizes it. She covers her mouth, getting closer, ducking her face into his shoulder. He settles a hand at the top of her scarf, feeling her soft hair under his palm. “Go,” she whispers urgently, “go, go.”
He walks her back downstairs.
It's a while before they're able to remove the man from deck, but the Coast Guard leaves them a few hours later. They scrub the area down, log the time and location, and Madani says goodbye to Curtis with a tentative shoulder squeeze. David pushes the boat forward while Manny and Terry monitor the radar for wayward vessels. They count 2 more on the waters nearest Fire Island after there is a call to local authorities on land for a body retrieval team.
“Madani confirmed all that shit out there, it's Fisk's fleet,” David tells them once they've gotten farther out into open ocean and Frank and Karen have since moved back up on deck. The sky is pink, the sun starting to set, and he breathes out through his mouth. He keeps staring at his feet and then back at Karen through sideways glances. “They're still uh... looking for something, that's sure enough. Won't spill as to what, over the radio, though.”
Frank moves away from his spot against the stern's railing and catches his gaze. Curt told him about her at some point during the day, it seems. “Hey,” he mutters, checking the erratic twitch in his wrist and then David’s tight grip in the mop of his hair. “You good?” Karen's paying no mind to them as she sits on the deck, trying to dip a booted toe into the racing water below, her arms resting against the rail in front of her. David nods a few times, leaning. Frank grabs hold of his tan jacket to keep him steady in his sway. “Keep it together, all right?”
“It's just… I mean, she's -” he barks a laugh, which causes Karen to stop extending her foot and turn to look at him. His hand is wiggling like a wave - like a tail. He freezes and Frank turns too, seeing her smile lightly but still gripping the rail a bit too tight.
“Yes,” she tells him softly.
“I mean, logic here, right? Though?” David starts to back up and out of Frank's grip, shaking a finger. He paces the length of the stern. “We had aliens -”
“Curtis said that too,” he says.
Snapping his fingers, pointing skyward, “- and the Norse gods, those guys. Have those too.”
“Still technically aliens.”
“The ocean is just, vast. Right? I get that. It's like… ninety-five percent of it, just - unexplored.”
“Can you stop shouting, Lieberman? Christ.” Frank wipes at his face before letting his hand slide up into his hair. They may be on open water miles from shore but they also have three very compliant and unsuspecting younger vets on board. They were all there. They all saw him pull her from the water in the first place. They all decided not to ask any more questions when he asked them to keep her on the down low from the Coast Guard. That can still change - none of them owe him anything.
“Sorry,” he says, taking a breath. His arms are out in a placated surrender, and he turns to face Karen. “Oh, my god. Sorry.”
“You all right?” Karen, whispers, concern dripping in her voice. When David laughs, yeah, yeah, his gaze wide and cast down for a moment, her face changes. Frank sees the way her cheeks lift with a smile, the way her eyes sparkle with amusement towards him. She chuckles with a shake of her head. It’s a good sound after the day she had.
Frank claps him on the shoulder when he looks up again. “Okay, buddy.”
“I'm gonna -” His voice is quieter. David starts to walk away, back towards the bow, a thumb pointing. “Jimbo’s doing dinner soon.”
“Okay,” he repeats.
“Call you when it's done.”
Karen is still smiling shyly when Frank sighs, his elbows against the rail again. He runs another hand through his short hair, watching as David disappears. “Conversation, Frank?”
“Yeah. Yeah, he's gonna want to, later, probably.”
Her leg adjusts against the deck with slow movements to face him. A tiny hiss escapes her lip as she settles again. One hand touches the railing, fingers tapping out an echoing and unfamiliar beat. Karen looks up at him expectantly. Oh. Carefully, he tucks himself into the other side of the railing beside her, sliding his legs through. The backs of his boots thunk on the hull.
She's quiet for some time. Her pensive stare is on the coming horizon before she rests her chin against her forearm, facing him. He shuts his eyes, feeling the spray below them splash against his cheek. “He's out looking for me, then,” she tells him. “Fisk will know. He'll go after my… my friends. That's what Wesley said.”
Frank has to interlock his fingers as his elbows rest on the rail so he can't make a fist. Fisk is - last he heard, anyway - buying up old rental properties to revamp them all over Hell's Kitchen with his wife. He knows of the going-ons before, down in the warehouse district, with the drugs, the trafficking and the Russians and all their bullshit, too. Enough of it had him wanting to puke. What's he want with her?
“I came just a little too close to the surface this time,” she says then. It's a second, where she swallows, gathering herself to sit up straight. “Got my tail caught deep in a net. They dragged me in, you know, dried me out. They tied me down to this board until I wore myself out - I'm… I'm screaming, my throat, and they put me in the fishbowl, Frank, again and again, and they held me against the glass and just -”
“- scratched me away for days.”
Frank breathes out, a heavy and boiling sensation growing deep in his chest. It's familiar.
Karen bites her lip, bringing a hand down to rub at her thigh like she had all morning. “I guess - they weren't really hiding what they were doing when I was in there. Collecting from me, and their… their tools. They were all,” she touches the railing with a stroke of her thumb, “cold metal. I just, I knew, I could, I could tell that I wasn't going - oh -”
She's got tears in her eyes, burying her cheek into her elbow. The eerie wail she gave them earlier is back, low and haunting as it carries away in the wind now. Frank feels it crawl over his skin and into his bones and coat the marrow. If he thinks hard enough, it's an old friend.
Her entire goal right now is to go back there, wherever that may be, and finish Fisk off. He knows it's going to be dangerous, going against him. Highly improbable, too. Needing to know everything about where he is and who is nearby, the way she'll go about it, how she'll be able to get out once the job is done -
“They kept, they were calling me Blue,” she whispers. Karen pulls back her dangling leg and watches him mimic the move, facing her head on. His back touches a storage bench. “Like I wasn’t anything.” He looks at the way her mouth settles flat, her eyes distant as the sun lowers, the sky getting darker each minute. Her jaw is clenched. She's gotten no peace in what's happened so far, but he knows just by looking at her, she's willing to risk herself again to claim it.
He'll ask Lieberman to take a look into Fisk when they're all back at shore again and they’ve got the resources. It’s not his first rodeo. This guy’s a shitbag has-been mob boss, but if he’s able to do something like this… If he's got a team of people doing this, it's probably one of his old warehouses where -
Karen reaches towards him, pulling him out of his head. Before he can even react, her thumb rubs gently down the side of his face. She’s tracing the lines his furrowed brow makes, the crinkle in his eye - and he lets her, reveling in the way his skin wakes, the way the blood in his ears roar. Goosebumps glide down his back, and it chills him further in the sea air. She drags her fingers through the scruff growing on his neck. A small hum vibrates in her chest as their eyes meet. It's relieving, and he doesn't deserve it.
Her hand drops to his bent knee as she scoots closer to him. It grounds him here, in this moment, and nowhere else. Karen crawls into his space without another word and rests a shoulder against his chest. She doesn’t even hesitate when her arm stretches between the rails, fingers dancing against the spray. Frank thinks they’re a sight, their bodies sprawled out on the deck as the stars begin to brighten the sky.
He can tell she's still in pain, though. She's still rash-red and flaking under the sweats, and she wants to get rid of Fisk. He points over to her thigh when she drops her other hand from his leg. “Is that any better?”
Slowly, Karen pulls back a pant leg with her free hand to reveal her left calf, instead. It's turned a darker shade of blue since the last glance he got, and the previously flaky red skin around her knee has turned to a smooth, pale pink. The shimmer below is growing out like a spider's web. “Time away, and the water helped some,” she tells him, and pats the fabric back down to let it pool at her toes. Karen leans her head back against his shoulder and breathes deeply. “But time is all it is.”
Chapter 2: Sunday
A new day on the ship, Karen spends more time on deck.
The next morning is foggy.
It's thick, low, and choking as it coats the ship and the water surrounding them. They've kept the boat slow to move forward, and a headlight on, steady and strong. The sun is still tucked behind heavy clouds by noon, it seems, so Curtis decides to let them linger.
Jimbo teaches Karen how to hook a lure while Terry takes laps around deck, playing with his lighter. Manny continues to nap on the ground by the bench, a loose fishing rod wrapped around his ankle - nowhere near the edge. Frank is rounding on his fourth cup of coffee in the control room, watching everything as David recharts a course for the way back later on.
Curtis plays the sound signal a few times but it's a wall of silence that plays back to them. It's a safety thing, sure, and Frank gets that - he says that - but there'd also been a fleet of ships last night out hunting for a missing mermaid. He fills his mug once more and squints into the fog, hearing nothing read back on the radar. The quiet is too loud, too strange.
David is not the one to miss the glance. “You think he pulled them all in for a dead guy?”
“I just hope there isn't another out there, you know, I'd never hear the end of it from Madani.”
“Best hope this girl only got the one,” Curtis laughs, peering down the window at her. “She's starting to remind me of you.”
“Cut the shit, Curt.”
His mind on Fisk and a sharp alertness on the water, he storms out of the control room, slamming the door on his way down the steps. He can hear laughter off the port, and turns to see Karen's head is tossed back, mouth smiling widely. Her hands are ridged in front of her, a lime green worm in her grasp. Jimbo rubs at the back of his head a few times beside her, his mouth moving, shoulders bouncing.
The radio overhead squeals on, feedback kicking through the speaker. “Screw you, Frank,” Curt calls out lightly, his hand on the mic. It clicks off before one of Curtis’ old playlists rushes their ears. Music older than everyone on board begins to echo in the air, and Frank shakes his head as he can spot him dancing along to it in the window, mean mugging, giving him shit.
“Ahh,” he rolls his eyes, a bit peeved at the idea. If Fisk has a fleet out of range out there, or if he's just called off the search, there's really no telling what he'll end up doing next. This really isn’t the place to screw around.
Frank moves to the starboard side. He's sipping black coffee and leaning over the rail to watch what he can see of the waves lap on the hull for a few minutes when he hears an inhuman shriek of delight over the tune playing.
Karen is being nearly hauled across the misty bow, her hand resting carefully on Terry's forearm as the funk music plays. He spins her once, eliciting a fresh whoo from her lips. His arm catches her around the waist like a whip. Her knees bend a little too sharply, her ankles wobbling like a marionette.
“Be easy, all right?”
Terry arches his back to avoid stepping on the sleeping Manny as they make their way along the side, pushing her back towards Jimbo’s direction. He drops his fishing rod with a stumble - quick to grab for her - and she laughs as the momentum lets them spin once, twice together and around. Jimbo lets her go just as the song fades out.
She is gasping as she moves unsteadily from port to starboard on her own, and Frank sets his mug down on a metal storage bench nearby to catch her as she locks her gaze on him. “ Frank,” she says low and hurriedly as she gets closer, like there's a hitch in her breath. It’s endearing. She's smiling with her teeth. “This is fun.”
He can give her this, then, he thinks, as the corner of his lip turns up in return. She's been dealt too much, she deserves better things.
Karen's hand grasps his for the first time as Curtis blares the sound signal again. The Earth, Wind and Fire tune that follows starts quick. “Yeah?” His arm wraps around her back, under her open coat, bringing her close to spin them a bit. “You okay?” He's chuckling as she nods.
The way her eyes are so goddamn blue in this foggy light - he has to drop his gaze to their feet for a moment. Shining Star, - indeed, how fitting - shaking his head at the thought. She slides her left hand up from around his waist and he can feel the grip she has on his hoodie firmly, higher at his back. It's hot, burning through and spreading deep in his chest as she gets closer. “Not too tight,” she tells him gently.
He's recalling all the man-made blue previously littered on her skin and his fingers flex, settling a bit softer on her hip. Karen's head bobs a little before he shakes his own, deciding against it. The look of absolute joy on her face is new and it’s definitely something he wants to keep. “C'mere,” he mutters over the quick beat, lifting her enough to settle her feet on his toes.
She is laughing freely at him then, when he throws her hand to his shoulder and holds it in place there, the other gripping her elbow. Her eyes are bright, the skin beside them crinkling with the way she smiles at him, and it's absolutely jarring. They make it from one side to the other - starboard to port - spinning them on his heels when the music feels right.
Her joyous squeal carries across the deck when he takes any step and it lifts her leg. Karen’s hand wraps around his neck and she leans in. The smile on his lip blooms without warning. Her cheek touches his as he lets some of the song slip from his mouth.
Shining star come into view, shine its watchful light on you.
Frank can feel her try to hum along, the repetitive beat thrumming against his jaw between quieting chuckles. His hand holding her elbow slides to her back, resting between her shoulder blades. Karen gently pets the skin at the base of his skull and he swings them out of tune to the starboard side, having no choice but to let the shiver her nails cause burrow inside him.
Frank lets her go from his embrace to watch her spin on her own feet. It's a familiar step for him as her arm rises into the air, fingers fluttering between his. Something he’s always admired on a sunny afternoon in the middle of Central Park - at two am in the middle of an empty Hell's Kitchen diner - on his wedding day in the middle of the dance floor.
On a fishing boat now, in the middle of the ocean.
The fog that has crept up on deck is dense enough to allow him to imagine they're alone, that they're not surrounded by a handful of jackasses - and it causes him to freeze for a second in surprise.
She whoo’s once more and he laughs a bit when she stumbles out from her turn. His arms grasp at her waist to catch her then, bringing her back to settle on his toes. “All right?” Karen gives him a quick hum from deep in her throat to answer him, wrapping a hand back around his neck, curling her fingers into the hood of his sweatshirt.
Frank brings them around once more on his heels. With another turn about the starboard side, he watches as her eyes shift to the fog around them, to their boots, his arm around her. Karen’s lip worries a bruise. He almost misses what she says next because the song continues to roar through the speaker.
Shining bright to see, what you could truly be.
“This isn’t right,” she tells him, stepping off his feet, out from his hold. Her hand comes up to cover her mouth quickly. “I don’t deserve this,” she whispers.
“Who’s got the say in any of that?” he asks her. Karen walks backwards, her hand reaching out blindly for the railing before she is turning, leaning into it.
“The others, they’re still out there,” she explains with a wave of her hand over the expanse of the water. “They're still in danger. He might go after them, too.”
“That won't happen,” he starts to say.
She races a hand through her hair, gripping it tight. When she turns around to face him, she's gasping for air, and her nose is pink. “Who’s got the say?” Karen echoes. “He - I…I’ve already… I lost my brother, before,” Karen is still pointing out into the white-blue fog, “to something like this. I could not see. It was my fault, then, too. My responsibility. I can't let that happen again.”
Frank has to shut his eyes and breathe through his nose. My responsibility. I can’t let that happen again.
“We got too high to the surface,” she says. Her voice wavers as the last notes of Shining Star end abruptly. “It was my idea. We had been down for a while. Low for the summer, you know?”
He doesn't. He lowers his chin to his chest, seeing that she starts to pace along, holding the browning remnants of the bruises on her throat. She's not actually waiting for him to answer.
“We went racing. It was a game. Stupid play.” Karen meets his eyes for only a moment, her hand then wavering at her mouth. She's still trying to breathe, gasping lightly. He can see her shoulders begin to shake. “You - you know, Kevin got caught in a net, too.” Frank follows the way her fingers curl into a fist and release, reaching for air when he steps closer to soothe her. “He uh… he struggled. I tried to grab for him and pull him out but his hand was… stuck. And the uhm -” she motions in a few circles over her neck. She shuts her eyes, baring her teeth.
“Hey,” he whispers gently, hearing her lungs wheeze, “listen to me -”
“All I could see before they tugged him out was the green uh… the green of his tail go still.” Her voice is grating. It reminds him of when she started to fight him after he brought her down from the deck. There are still scratch marks in the webbing between his fingers. “He was, uhm - I have a little green, too, you know -”
He does, but - “Listen, you gotta breathe,” Frank holds the curve of her shoulders gently. He's rubbing into her collarbone with his thumbs, chasing her gaze, trying to get her to look him in the eye. She can tell him her story all she wants, he’ll listen all fucking day - but the panic in her tne only rises more when she doesn’t take a breath. There's a tiny wail building in her throat as she speaks, and she covers her mouth like she's trying to stop her own words. “ Hey, breathe, Karen, shit -”
“- you saw, though, right? I'm just - I'm more blue than green. He was -”
“- Jesus Christ -”
“ - more green, but he still had some blue, and - and I couldn’t -”
“- Karen, goddamnit -”
The sound signal blares again behind him. Karen's hand falls against his chest and she finally, finally inhales. It's sharp, in unison with his, and full of surprise. Her panicky rambling stops, but tears are quietly falling. There is a distinct click of a disc change over the speaker before the beginning of Build Me Up Buttercup starts to play.
Un-fucking-believable. “We're doing this right now? ” Frank yells blindly up at the control room window. “Cut that shit out, all right? Curtis! Christssakes,” he shouts, turning back to look at Karen. He's still loud, he can hear it, but now he’s trying to get his point across before the alarm spreads over her features again. “Let me tell you something, okay? You - you're gonna be okay.”
The music cuts out and he can hear a muffled argument between David and Curt.
Karen's hand folds, twisting in the fabric of his hoodie. He can see a fat tear trace the apple of her cheek, resting on a small mole by her mouth. On instinct, he swipes his thumb across to get rid of it. It's warm and slides down across his palm before he's able to shake it off. Her eyes meet his. “Look, I -” Frank’s voice lowers, “I get it. I do, okay? I get what you're going through. I’ve gotten blood on my hands. I lost my family too. They… uh -” He makes a defeated, gutted noise deep in his throat, because of course she knows. The guilt, the emptiness. The dark and the endlessness that just builds at the back of your mind and buries hooks into your heart. Of course she would know this feeling, she's reliving it right in front of him, he doesn’t need to explain how it is.
He's aware she's found an old bullet hole high up by his shoulder when her left pointer finger slides through the lightweight material and presses at his bare skin. It traces the old scar hiding beneath. The hand still on his chest clenches tighter when her thumb rubs at the edges, a pensive expression crossing her face. She’s trembling. She’s worrying her lip again.
“I did what I had to, after it happened,” he admits to her. God, was that easy to say. He’ll spare her the details, though. Instead, he holds the hand on his chest and rubs across the back of it with his thumb. Karen takes a shuddering and wet breath, glancing at the move quick before shutting her eyes. It brings him back to the memory of the morning before, and now he feels a lot more grounded in comparison. For that, he's sure. “You did what you did. To protect yourself, and the others, right?”
Her hands were caked with blood, even after drifting for however long out there, when he found her. Numerous bruises of all shapes and colors had covered her from head to toe. There's no fathomable explanation to the extent she had been put through, after finding out how quickly her bruises heal - and still she keeps fighting.
“And you own that.” Karen only tightens her grip on his hoodie, swaying forward. He can see her knuckles turn white. “You’re terrifying,” he tells her softly. She’s a goddamned force of nature, he thinks. Frank wipes another tear off her cheek and she sputters out a chuckle. She bends her forehead onto his. He can taste the salt on her skin when he doesn't think further and briefly presses his lips high to her cheekbone. She leans just slightly in to let them linger. “You’re so fucking terrifying.”
Build Me Up Buttercup starts up where it left off on the speaker. A collective whooping laughter drifts out from the control room.
The sun burns the fog away by mid afternoon.
In the silence of a still ship Frank can hear Curtis and Manny on the port side with their fishing rods cast, rounding up what they can for dinner. Manny asks if they can grill up steaks instead.
“No,” Curtis says slowly. “Why, did you bring any?”
He has to squint from the reflection off the water. This wasn’t the same at the end of the dock back at the lighthouse. It's a good heat out here too - Curt had been right about that. It soaks into his pores and spreads across his shoulder blades as he slowly makes his way from the bow to head up the control room steps for a coffee refill.
The door to the downstairs hall slams shut. Karen’s body bristles when her head turns a few times in search before she lands on him. She’s sans coat now, and he spots the bruises on her neck have turned brownish yellow. It nearly matches the shade of hair that falls to her shoulders. With her lip curling a bit, she points at him. “ Why is David just telling me now I’m going to shore?”
Frank pauses on the first stair and turns towards her. She’s seething, her eyes are piercing and her hands stiff - but wasn’t this the plan all along? Keep her safe from Fisk and his fleet, get her away from the danger whilst she healed? He looks over her shoulder and sees Jimbo sitting on a bench nearby, his head raising only slightly before his eyes go wide. They’re definitely not having this discussion out here. The kid turns back to the video game playing loudly in his hands. Frank looks around, gathering a head count in his mind.
“Where’s Terry?” He asks him, knowing he’s still listening. “He upstairs?”
Jimbo’s arm points straight ahead without glancing up again. “‘Round back, I think.”
“Frank,” Karen grinds through her teeth. She’s impatient.
He nearly chokes on a laugh with the line of irritation and accusation she gives him when he looks at her. It’s almost too effortless and familiar to fall back into something like this. He can smell the wafting scent of a cigarette off the stern, okay. Control room is clear. “C’mon,” he tells her softly. “We can talk up here.”
With a few heavy steps closer to grasp her hand, he pulls her forward to lead them upstairs. She meets his eye, her gaze hard and angry as she rips her hand from his and blindly reaches for the doorknob when they meet the landing. Karen wriggles it open. It nearly whacks him in the arm with the force she uses.
“Easy,” he grumbles, making his way towards the coffee machine.
She doesn’t wait for him to turn around. “Easy? You fished me out from water, you can just as easily watch me go back.” There’s an edge to her voice, like there’s an underlying threat. He’s not sure what it’d be. Her boots thump on the floor as she steps in further. “I take care of myself, Frank.”
His arm absently waves the half empty mug in his hands toward the window, to where he had been standing when they first spotted Wesley’s body. To where Frank had first seen her, ghostly pale and spotted against the dark blue current before he jumped in to retrieve her. He believes it, though. He’s seen what she’s capable of.
It’s only after he’s poured a new cup and turns so casually towards her that he realizes he spent it with his back to her rage in the first place.
He sips the coffee, watching her pace on the other side of the room. There’s a soft muttering beneath her breath as she turns her face away. “I don’t doubt that. I don't,” he tells her gently. Karen cocks her jaw when she pauses, her icy stare still holding weight. The shadows on her neck are still deep in this light. “I just don't want the risk to still be there and have him get a second chance at grabbing you, all right? We’re not holding you hostage.” He takes another swallow of coffee and places the cup down to approach her. “That’s not how I do things. Can I -?”
She stops circling the room with fretful noises when he reaches to settle a hand onto her arm. Their eyes meet and he dares himself to step closer, hovering along the parts of her collarbone left exposed from her shirt when she nods. A thumb follows the expanse of her neck and she breathes out sharply with her mouth, her eyes half-lidded but still glaring at him. Karen allows the touch though, for his finger to trace the fading bruises, to hold her chin. With the speed at which she’s been healing, he figures it’ll be a few more hours until they’re entirely gone. Frank wants to know how the skin on her legs is faring.
“We just need some time to figure this out, yeah?” David could find Fisk’s bank records in a few strokes of a keyboard, nevermind the time it would take to locate where he hangs out on a daily basis. Karen could tell them where she was being kept. And Curtis - he’d be able to at least distract Madani for a little while they made a plan, if it came to that. “We can do that back on the ground.”
He can feel the vibration of her low growl beneath his fingers. “I take care of myself,” she repeats. It’s here where she steps back, and Frank drops his hand. “I was doing fine before you found me.”
Jesus Christ, she is so stubborn. “You were nearly half-dead, floating out there when we found you -”
“You took a fish out of water, Frank. That’s what you actually did, you -”
“- so how are you gonna - you have legs! You can’t think we -”
“- just scooped me in without a net, thank the jellies -”
“- would just know you were a goddamn mermaid -”
“- for that, but I heal quicker in water, and I told you I had to go -”
Frank puts his hand up amidst the argument, slashing it across the space between them. “Stop,” he tells her. Her mouth shuts, but he can see the clench of her teeth as she huffs. She said that, before, he remembers, she said the water helped. “If you - why’d you stay? Why put up with us?” Why the hell would she bother sticking around if that were the case? The moment she was left to roam in any room on the ship - after pulling her out, and she didn’t leave. “With all of our bullshit?”
The lines in Karen’s harsh glare become soft as her eyes trace his face, as she tilts her head slowly. It shakes a little. “Because I believed you,” she says simply. Her shoulders shrug, and she fidgets with an elbow as she holds herself. “You told me I was safe. I could see it. I… I could feel it, Frank. You mean it. And - and being here I found was safer than being out there.”
He’s such a fucking asshole, because he’s been using her rage at Fisk to give himself another reason to go and do what he does best, since he lost his family. But he didn’t lie - she is safe, if she stays close enough for him to know. There’s no telling what direction that missing fleet of ships had been following, where Fisk is, or if he’s got a best guess on how he’s going to find him once they’re back on land. “This guy you’re going after? He’s got connections. They’re lousy, but he has them. The guy’s dirty.”
“I refuse to go to ground, Frank,” she grits out. Her arm lifts and gently pushes him from her space. “You have,” her voice chokes, “- after what they did to me, this… this skin - I can’t -” Karen covers her mouth and muffles an angry sound. She’s quiet for the moment after, blinking back tears. “It’s so hot,” she explains breathlessly. “It’s pain, it’s… it’s like the sun.” She turns to look through the big window, teeth bared as she rubs at her thigh. “It feels like it’ll never go away. This skin -” A wet sob, then the eerie wail leaves her lips. “It’s this skin, Frank. I don’t want it anymore.”
He tries to ease her panic, a hand rising between them in placation. “Hey, shh, shh -” Karen rocks side to side on her feet as she closes her eyes and worries her lip. Her chin lifts at the sound and she reaches blindly for him again, her breath heavy. They can figure something else out, he doesn’t even need to think about it. “What can I - tell me what to do, here, Karen. Please.”
He can feel the nerves beneath his own skin race up his arm when she shakes, softly touching the inside of his elbow. It’s not like the painful burn she describes - it’s warm, but it’s also gentle and forgiving and Frank nearly trips from where he stands, because why does he deserve something so pleasant right now when she’s practically folding in half in front of him?
Karen steps into his legs anyway, wrapping her arms around his neck and sighing unsteadily as she presses her cheek against his. She’s got a tight grip on the hood of his sweatshirt, yanking him closer. His nose buries into the soft blonde hair by her ear - smelling like salt water - and he can hear the soothing sound of her humming again. It has an edge of urgency, like her teeth are clenched and she’s rushing through to finish the ethereal tune, and Frank knows she’s still angry, still terrified of the mere thought of going back.
Her hum is not aimed at him, he realizes, and he’s just the kind of asshole to assume it has been this whole time.
It's the recognition of that and his desire to comfort that demands him to hold her closer, pressing fingers lightly against her spine as his arms circle her. Karen quickly pets at the nape of his neck, his question answered silently in a few simple strokes. He runs a few fingers through the strands of hair he can reach, and she squeezes tighter as he lets them linger. She's pressed so close that he can feel her hummingbird heartbeat in his own chest. A hand slides back and forth between her shoulder blades and Frank feels her begin to sway again, nearly in time with his touch. His boots rock as the two of them move side to side. “Okay,” he whispers.
He's checked the radar for signs of local ships all day, garnering nothing. Fisk must have called them off once Dinah got in touch with him about the body - but Frank knows that will only hold him off for a little while.
For now though, he celebrates quietly with the guys, a new beer in his hands. The six of them are spread across the bow, either leaning on the rail or sitting on the lounge chairs David brought. Curt is staring straight up, watching the stars only get brighter, and David turns the headlights off before moving towards the group and settling into his chair near Frank. Manny throws his lure out, Jimbo leans back enough in his chair to risk teetering it, and Terry is rambling on about his job to them between puffs of a cigarette. Frank’s halfway through shredding off the label on a bottle when they all hear a clattering from the stern.
From where he sits he can see the corner of the storage locker back there, and a pair of green rain boots previously tossed towards the side. Karen is barefoot at the end of the boat, and just outside of view.
“Hey,” he gets their attention, pointing behind him. “Anyone see her eat today?”
“I asked, but she didn’t want any of what we made for dinner,” Manny calls over his shoulder.
“Frank,” Curtis says low, leaning close to shake his head when he stands. “You would know if someone saw her.”
The hard look he gives in return - because it’s true, and he’s right, again - doesn’t hold for much longer when he makes his way down the side of the ship to see. Karen's toes are wiggling high in the air across a yellow lounge chair as she lays on her back against the cool deck. He spots her right hand reaching past the rail and down the hull towards the water. She pauses her stretch only when his boots get closer, and she tilts her chin up with a tiny smile when he gets near.
“Hi,” she whispers.
“Hey,” he chuckles at the sight of her and takes a sip of beer. There’s a patch of blue that peeks out from where her pant leg bunches up around her calf. Her hair whips a few times where it hangs away from the side of the boat, and the glow of the moon turns it white. She looks absolutely content where she is on the ground. Her eyes follow when he sets the bottle down. “You okay?” Her mood seems better.
Karen’s left arm shoots forward from the floor, fingers dancing at him. Without a second to think about it, he grabs for it, feeling her tug him closer. It’s enough for him to stumble, and he inhales sharply. Frank bends at his knees beside her, looking away to sputter another laugh when he watches the smile on her mouth widen at his shock. She’s a lot stronger than she looks. “Better, yes.”
“Yeah? You hungry?”
Karen’s thumb slowly runs across the back of his hand. The caress is gentle, and she lowers her eyes from him, tilting her head to watch his own thumb match it. The waves lap against the hull behind her and it’s the only sound he can hear as he lazily swipes across her skin. He notes how curious her stare is, and how she couldn’t look at him when he had been telling her about his family.
Her feet slide off the back of the chair and onto the deck as she sits up on her knees, leaning against the railing. He can recall the way she had ripped herself from his grasp with a huff the morning before - how even he had trouble catching his breath at the memories of his family that had come forward with the touch. She doesn’t let go this time. “Yes.”
“What’ll it be, then, huh,” he asks, grasping for her other hand. It’s wet from playing with the spray, and she squeezes tight when he pulls them to stand. “I can... I can make you a chicken sandwich, or uh, some rice, I could do that.” The amusement grows in her eyes and Frank has to stop himself from lingering on the way her teeth bite at her rising lip. She’s trying not to laugh at him, but he can hear a fond and dreamy sound, rising up from her chest. It’s a sharp change from the distressing noises she’s made before, and he thinks it’s a good one. “We could do breakfast again, maybe. Make you some pancakes this time.”
“Oh, you play,” she says with a joyful whisper. The words light up her face and she sways a bit before he tugs her along, wary of the buzz creeping up around his neck. “You’ve swallowed an eel, Frank.”
He laughs a bit too loudly at that, because it makes absolutely no sense to him, and seeing her so giddy about it makes him flush, but - “It’s just not my first beer of the night,” he tells her. They make their way across the side of the boat, her hand gripping the sleeve of his arm as he leads.
In the kitchen, Karen goes directly to the big cooler for fish by the fridge and yanks the lid open. She nearly teeters on the edge to reach one as Frank settles into his chair at the end of the table, sipping from the bottle in his hands.
When she stands, she eyes him quickly and snaps the cold fish in half with practiced ease, gently placing the fish head in front of him on the tabletop. One of the lifeless eyeballs stares back at him. “You eat, too.” Her fingers nudge it closer before she climbs onto the table beside him to sit like she had before. Frank can feel his eyebrows rise a bit, thinking that maybe he should have handed her a plate before he sat down. “In the water, we eat as a group. We sleep in a group.” Her hands begin to pick out the bones of what is left of her fish. “We… we play in a group.”
Karen’s got that tiny smile on her face again when she meets his gaze, her chin set high, and he laughs softly at her expression. She’s playing with him, too. If he listens close, he can hear her soft and consistent hum as she chews what’s in her hands. He points at his share. “I got enough going home with me, you should eat it.”
“Where is home, for you?”
The question makes him pause, his fingers freezing over the sticker on the bottle. His head spins. Home had been in the arms of his wife - in the tender soft baby hairs resting on the back of his children’s necks. The scent of fresh cut grass on a sunny day, he thinks, with their laughter echoing in his ears. Dad, look -
He’s isolated, for the most part, since he lost them. Home sometimes seems to be a quiet violence and a warm smoking gun pressed against his hip on the worst days. Frank can tell through the lighter haze that he’s sobering a little when he looks at her again. Karen’s face is soft and her eyes apologetic, as if she can read on his face where he’s falling to. He supposes she could, after telling him about her brother.
“It’s uh… a lighthouse, actually. Just by the coast,” he manages to get out. “Not really far from where we’re planning to dock tomorrow.” Her gaze is back on him as he takes a gulp from the bottle, and he’s picked the label clear off at this point, so he tosses the sticker in the general direction of the trashcan in the corner. “It’s just me and -” it misses, “this kid, now, sometimes, over there.”
He had gotten her out from a Russian’s chokehold in some dirty alley in Queens after a couple of drinks with Curtis one night. Had her strung up against the brick, screaming about finally catching her stealing food - even snatching a wad of small bills from her front pocket as she continued to fight for breath - then there had just been red. Red behind his eyes, red on the skin of his knuckles, red splashed in a puddle of muddy water from the leaky AC unit in a window above them. Curtis had struggled to yank him off the guy when there was a final, sickening squelch in his cheek.
Frank rubs his hand over his chin, scratching through the hair growth before sliding it to the back of his neck. “Got caught up in some bullshit, you know, so I helped get her out of it. Wasn’t my first time going to war.”
Karen glances down at her hands then, a shaky breath leaving her mouth as she carves out what’s left beneath her fingernails. She brushes a tendril of hair back behind her ear and breathes deeply then, her legs swinging gently as one ankle tucks behind the other. He can see a question hanging heavy in her throat.
“Hey,” he whispers softly, leaning forward. “Whatever it is, just ask me.”
Her fingers crawl upon his when he sets his palm on the table, and she rakes her nails across it. “Your family,” she asks, “what happened to them?”
So he tells her.
Karen’s made a plan to leave them just as dawn arrives if the horizon stays clear. No one can stop her.
It's just before midnight.
Curtis has turned the boat towards home but they've anchored for the night, ready to take them back to Manhattan after they make breakfast. The bedroom is mostly dark. With the night navigation light outside glowing behind Leo's moss on the porthole, it is the only illumination, and it's dim at best.
Curtis moves only once in the bunk across from him, turning on to his side, arm slung over the edge. Frank's eyes are closed and half of his blanket is kicked away. He's hyper focused on the creaks in the mattress above him, on the grunts and sniffling of David as he continuously fidgets. He has half a mind to swing a boot up and knock him out.
There's a soft rustling on the bunk above Curt. Low grumbles of distaste echo in their ears when a pillow falls to the floor in the middle of the room. Last night, she had thrown the blanket down, too. He catches the sound of her jaw click in irritation, and he understands why, now. She’s not used to sleeping alone. Karen's halfway down the bunk’s ladder when Curtis scoffs a small and muffled laugh. “Ooh, Frank, she's coming for you.”
“I hear her,” he grumbles.
Her feet pat pat pat on the cold, hard floor to his side of the room and he thinks he should have offered her socks to bed if he knew she'd be wandering around this late. She wouldn't want the socks though. She doesn't want the feet they'd go on, even.
In shadow, Karen crawls the length of his bed without hesitation and he rolls to his back, an arm open to invite her in close. She wants this from him though - from him - he notes when she ducks her face into the crook of his neck. While she rests a tentative, warm hand high on his bare chest, he won't deny that he wants this from her, either.
It's a loaded question. She’s been able to keep such a strong face in front of the other guys here. He wants to know if she's feeling any better, if she's healed up enough to venture back out there. If merely shedding the human skin she's in will help her. Wants to know if she's really okay here, wrapped up so close in his arms. He wants to know if his shoulder is comfortable enough for her cheek.
There's a small sound of contentment from her that tickles his throat when he rubs her arm. Karen's hand reaches and drags to his chin, slowly petting the stubble along his jaw once, twice, before she inhales deeply, settling it over his heart. She nuzzles her cheek back against his skin.
They lay like that in the dark for a while, and his eyes close to the inky black of the room. He can feel her breathe with him, her chest rising and falling against the edge of his.
"Okay," she whispers.
He wants this. The fingers on his other hand are climbing the ball of her shoulder as he pulls her in close. Frank loses them in her hair as he runs through the strands a few times, turning towards her. He can feel the flutter of her eyelashes close where she lays against his arm. When he opens his eyes to try and see her, the light is too faint.
She's fucking terrifying. Jesus Christ, just yesterday morning he had locked himself up in a memory from before everything went to shit but now -
His mouth presses against her forehead, finding her temple. Frank shuts his eyes from the black for just another second. He wants this. “Okay,” he says with a low and quiet laugh, hearing the rustle of his bedsheets as she moves herself closer, nudging both her legs to rest in the valley of space between his.
“You two have a connection,” David chuckles loudly from above, his tone mocking and light. Frank tries to clench his teeth at the sound and focuses on the way Karen presses her nose deep into his collarbone, the way her fingers slowly and oh so lazily scratch at the other end of his shoulder.
A solid thunk of a rubber heel hits the floor - a warning. “You're gonna connect with this boot if you don't shut up, David,” Curtis muffles from his pillow.
Chapter 3: Monday
Frank gets a gift.
The alarm on his phone goes off and he wakes alone in the bed. Frank can recall how tight she wrapped herself in him, how he had turned towards her, his leg intertwined with hers in their embrace, a hand tangled in the hair at the nape of her neck. On instinct, he rubs the spot she had been in, feeling the warmth she left, wondering how she was able to slip by him at all with the way he sleeps.
He doesn't wake the others. Instead, he changes and makes his way up the stairs, hearing her laughter out on deck. The sun's not even turning the sky a soft blue yet and as he walks out he can see Karen leaning back against the rail off the port. Her chin is raised, smiling wide at the sky with her eyes closed. Manny stands beside her, a half eaten bagel in his hand while he checks out the horizon, laughing more than Frank's heard from him at all this weekend.
“Did you just say thank the jellies? Like jellyfish?”
“Yes,” she admits easily. Her face contorts in confusion, her eyebrows furrowing. “Why, is that weird up here? What do you say?”
Frank turns his head away, wiping his face in cause to both frustration and sleep, shaking his head. “Jesus Christ,” he mutters to himself. What was the point in keeping her secret on the down low from these guys if she doesn't? What had changed?
Manny doesn't seem at all bothered by her terms. In fact, in the midst of his snorting laugh, his thumb bounces behind him to point at Frank. “That. Hey, man.”
He's three stairs up to the control room to turn on the radar and see if the coast is clear when she sees him.
Karen shakes her head, the early morning breeze whipping the hair off of her finally pale and untroubled neck. She smiles a little, and the navigation light hits the sparkle in her eye as it rotates. “Manny says it’s safe,” she calls to him. “I... I asked to check. You were sleeping, he was already awake.”
“Yeah?” Frank watches as she moves across the bow to get closer. The smile on her mouth only grows wider. It’s one with teeth. She's excited to go. He wonders why she wouldn’t wake him.
Then again, she’s still here after hearing the news.
Karen turns away from him then, her hands twitching off from her hips. “Manny,” she starts. He looks at her over his shoulder. “Why are you up by yourself?”
He scoffs. The bagel in his hand nearly goes overboard with the way he tosses his arm up, like the answer is obvious. “I got kids, honeybee,” he tells her. “Been sleeping when they sleep. Can't get out of the habit in a weekend, you know?” Manny doesn't wait for an answer, and Frank can see his eyes quickly flicker over him, nodding gently at the blonde. “You be safe, okay?”
She steps tentatively in the direction of the stern, looking back to Frank.
Karen holds the rail with white knuckles, her eye on him when they get there. He can see her trace over his cheeks, his chin, the sharp dip at his throat. He catches when she bites her lip, worry growing in her eyes. “What?” It's more of a grunt than an actual coherent word, but it's all he can muster up right now.
“I know you're going to want to help,” she admits. His mouth opens with a tiny scoff, because he hasn’t actually said it out loud to her, and hearing her say it makes him wonder. He doesn’t want to deny it, though, because of course he does. She cuts him off before he can say so. “You get this look, right around here,” her hand cups his cheek, her thumb tracing the lines beside his brow. He clenches his teeth and breathes deep through his nose to avoid the shiver that so desperately wants to climb his spine. “I've seen it before, Frank -”
“Then you know how this goes,” he says, so quick and sure, pulling away. He needs to make her see. An exasperated hiss leaves her throat. “You know I can. This is Wilson Fisk. Okay? He's going to have backups to his backup plans, and he's going to kill you if -”
“I don't want to risk you in this, I'm not risking -”
“- he even sees you again, all right? After what happened? You shouldn't have to -”
“- anyone else here, or the others because of my stupid mistakes.”
“- do this alone. Karen, fuck, I swear to god, I can't - hey -”
Her silent retort to his interruption is her mouth setting itself in a thin line of irritation, and a harsh yank of the gray sweatpants to the floor. It exposes the ever-growing deep blue scales on the meat of her hip and over her thighs, cascading to a fade past her knees. There is a shimmering blue-green layer that creeps upon flaky dry patches around the inside of her knees and disappears beneath the long shirt she still wears. The skin by her ankles is still a pale pink, but the glimmer of it all isn't hiding anymore.
Karen kicks the pants away, shoving them in a corner by a yellow lounge chair facing the port side. One foot steps up onto the lower rail, and Frank feels her reach out for his arm, keeping herself steady. He’s such a fucking idiot because he lets her. His mind is screaming NO as her right leg swings over. She's just going to go, she's going to -
“Just, wait. Wait, okay,” he tries. Karen meets his gaze as she brings herself to the other side, and he sees her huff impatiently, but she's hesitant. She pauses. Wait, wait, wait. Frank grips her tight when she turns on the ball of her foot to face him. Her toes press into the tops of his boots, and he holds her around the waist to keep her secure. “We can't be done here. Not right now. Please.”
“That look on your face? It's familiar because it's mine.” He realizes it. He’s seen it, sitting across from her on the floor of the bunk. Frank mindlessly runs his thumb over her side at her words. She rests a hand on his bare chest, his hoodie half zipped, allowing her to feel the pounding of his heart. “I see it - so don't you dare do this and say it's for me.”
There's so much more he wants to know. Needs to know. His trigger finger bounces into her hipbone until Karen breathes deep, sliding both of her hands down to rest on his arms. She's standing on the other side of the rail and she's going, she's still just going to leave, she's going to get herself killed for this mission of hers, goddamnit.
“Say goodbye to me, Frank,” she whispers.
He's done the goodbyes before. He's done it for the men on the battlefields, his brothers, his friends, his family - the wife, the boy, his baby girl. Each of them a goodbye said too broken, too soon, too much. He looks at the way Karen's eyes soften when she stares, and he doesn't want to do it anymore.
“No,” it’s harsh and breathless. There has to be other plans to think of. She's strong, capable of murder, and she's brave to go up against Fisk after everything that’s happened to her, but she's so goddamn stubborn about -
Her eyes narrow with true challenge and she digs her nails into his arms. He chances a second to look at where she meets him, to see the red half moons in his skin, and then she's yanking him over to her side of the rail like a ragdoll.
In an instant, they're hurtling off the edge together - and Frank has barely enough time to blink or shout in surprise, to breathe, before he succumbs to the ocean.
His body sinks - tumbling - turning too fast. His eyes open to a painful sting against the salt water, his fingers extending out in the blackness for purchase. Karen, where is Karen? She was just here, her hands -
The heavy boots on his feet begin to weigh him down. His hoodie and jeans are restrictive, and it’s ice cold on the back of his legs as he sinks even further from the momentum of the fall. Frank squints against the burn, clawing all around him and where he can reach - his lungs are screaming at him now, and there is - there is nothing, nothing.
Then there is. Something moves quickly from below him.
Shit, how far out are they again? He kicks to try and get back to the air. Where is Karen? His lungs are on fire -
Arms grasp at his sweatshirt, pulling him out of the drag and towards the surface. Frank breaks through and gasps deep, feeling hands touch his face. “Frank.” It’s her, it’s her voice, it’s her. He wipes at his eyes the best he can and blinks away at the salt burn until he can see the damp blonde hair, the pale pink shoulders, her blue eyes, the red of her mouth -
Feels her tail.
“You’re okay, you’re okay,” Karen whispers. The sound of the water trickling off her fingers as she strokes at his cheek is all he can focus on until he can shake the droplets from his hair. She’s settled with her tail between his legs and he touches her waist to keep himself steady, feeling a mesh of bare skin and scale under his palm as he wades in the water. It's too murky to see what he's touching, but she's curling the end of it around one of his legs, that's unmistakable. She could easily drag him back under with one swift tug, if she wanted, but she only keeps him close.
“Holy shit,” he breathes.
“You’re okay,” she repeats softly.
Karen sways a bit, keeping them upright. He holds her waist a bit tighter as his free leg kicks out to do the same. Frank watches her eyes trace over him, feeling her fingers comb past his ear and cradle the back of his head. She bares her teeth for a moment and huffs to herself.
He hesitates to explain himself, and he isn’t going to lie to her. There’s so much corruption, murder, kidnappings and dirty money changing hands in Hell’s Kitchen - for Frank, in the simplest of terms, Fisk is dead. He’s overdue for it, if he could give an opinion on it. This won’t be the first time he’s come across this asshole's dealings, and looking at Karen’s worrying lip, the irritated flush of her cheeks, he knows it’ll be the last.
“I’m gonna go after this guy,” his voice is hoarse from trying to inhale enough air into his lungs, but it’s confident. It’s barely considered a dare, like she suggested. This is a promise. “I’m… it’s gonna keep you safe.” He pulls a plastered, wet strand of her hair away from its spot on her cheek. He twists it around his thumb, seeing it expose a sprinkle of light blue freckles at her temples, fading past her ear as he tucks the piece into place. They match her eyes. Christ. “Know that.”
“I have to go,” she tells him shakily, pushing on his shoulder until his back touches the side of the ship. “Just -” Her left hand squeezes the hood at his neck before she’s trailing her eyes over his face again. She’s hesitating, too.
He can see a set of gills upon the side of her neck when he reaches and absently pets at her cheek. There's a nervous hum in her throat and Frank feels her tail loosen its hold on his leg. This is it, he thinks. He's never gonna see her again. The thought races through his mind a thousand times as Karen leans in, settling her forehead against his. For a moment, they just breathe together.
His fingers are a tangled mess in the wet hair at the nape of her neck when she ever so delicately presses her lips to his.
It’s so light, so surprising, and only with just the briefest touch. Her nose brushes his, her hand slowly stroking over his ear to make it into his damp hair again. She brings his face in closer with a small but strong tug - and Frank follows, kissing her like he's not going to have a second chance. She tastes sweet, leaving him overcome - like how he feels standing on the dock at a sunrise on the ocean.
Her arm wraps around at his back, pulling low at his sweatshirt to keep him close. His mouth covers hers until he’s tasting her tongue at his lip, and his thumb caresses the line of her jaw. Karen languidly traces the nape of his neck as Frank deepens the kiss, hearing the slight hitch in her breath at his touch. His leg wraps around her tail and his back smacks hard against the hull when she surges forward on her own.
He thinks - as the horizon breaks through purple, and warm tones of orange burst behind his eyelids - like the wind could knock itself out of his lungs only if he were to open his eyes right now and figure this all for another dream.
God, he’s not going to have a second chance.
Karen’s hand yanks hard at his hoodie and she sighs against his mouth, leaning away. Frank strokes his fingers over her spine to give himself an excuse to keep touching her when she lingers. Her arm lowers below the surface, and he's aware of how her tail moves against the front of his legs, keeping him flush with the boat.
“Frank,” she says softly, now placing her wet palm on his skin, just above his heart. It’s not just her hand he feels, though - a thin layer of blue scales shimmer in the morning light as she rubs at it, smoothing it slowly into place over his collarbone like a piece of tape.
Their eyes meet and he wants to ask why, or even what the hell, Karen, because she had just spent the last two days getting them back. Two days at least - they still have no idea how long she had been floating. He can’t open his mouth to say anything when he sees her lower her face to kiss him once, twice where the scales meet his skin. Frank feels another pressed slow and gently, high up on his neck, and then Karen finally leans in for one on his mouth. He savors it.
“Be careful,” she tells him, her voice wavering. It's no longer an argument between them, but it's not an agreement either. They've hit an impasse. She looks him over once more, resigned. He watches her push herself from the boat, from him, and with a breach of her deep blue tail, she's gone.
He wanted to tell her to stay low. He wanted to ask what her plan is. He wanted to tell her he’s going to see the end of it.
“Take care,” he manages to say instead.
It’s the first thing David mentions when he sees him enter the downstairs hall from his spot in the kitchen doorway. His eyes drop to his bare chest, where the metal zipper has been torn away from the fabric of his hoodie and the pull tab is long gone - and he’s right. A few scratch marks below the scales and across his heart leading towards his arm bead a deep red. Watered down rivulets fall to disappear into the edge of his jeans. He doesn’t even feel them - he could almost laugh because Curt will be more upset about the puddles of ocean water he’s left everywhere on his way back inside than Frank is about this.
At least they'll be a reminder.
The socks in his boots give a squelch as he moves towards the bedroom, a hand tightening on the sweatpants she left behind. David shifts in the doorway when he asks, taking a sip from his mug before lowering his gaze to the floor. He can still hear water trickling from his hoodie, running down his legs and over his boots to the floor. That, and the loud rush of blood screaming behind his ears. David heads back into the kitchen when Frank doesn’t say anything, his mouth moving quickly about the medkit.
“Are you for real right now?”
His trigger finger drums erratically into the tight twists of fabric. Frank isn't sure which one of the guys ask, the voice carrying from the kitchen table as he struggles at the door to the bunk. He can't focus on anything more beyond the feel of his fingers on cotton, the rust of cool metal, knowing he needs to take his boots off, his socks, he needs to change, he needs to start -
Kicking this goddamn door open, holy shit - “C'mon,” he grunts. His shoulder slams into the side. The hinge doesn’t move. After another failed attempt, he slides his back against it to the floor and drops her pants. He slips his face into his hands and tries to think before resting them on his knees. The roar in his head is getting louder.
Curtis looks up from flipping pancakes on the griddle plate and gets a good look into the hallway. “Jesus, Frank.”
She just fucking left. Didn’t tell him her plan, doesn’t want his help - and he had told her, he told her everything about what he’s done before. What he’s capable and willing to do now -
It takes all of him to not blindly call out to David to ask him everything he knows about Fisk’s shady shit and if he knows where his new warehouses might be right now. They’ll have more to research when they’re back on the ground. Be careful, she said. He can remember the look in her eye the other day when she had first told him what happened to her. Karen may be going at this alone but she knew, she fucking knew right off the bat he wasn’t backing out either.
He’s sitting on the kitchen table then. Curt’s fingers are pulsing over his face and neck, thumbs on his chin as he checks him out. His fingers snap, and there’s no sound. His mouth moves, and there’s nothing. Where are you right now? Curt lifts the remains of his hoodie away from his skin, his dark eyes inquisitive, his hand reaching for -
“Get off me, goddamnit,” Frank growls. He pulls back and goes to stand, because he needs to change out of these clothes, his fucking boots are wet, and wasn’t he just in the hall - but Curtis sets him down again.
“D’you think it’s a good luck charm?”
“I will clock you with this leg,” Curtis says gravely, his face turning away and pointing towards where Terry had been sitting last he can recall. “Shit, Frank -”
“Ooh-hoo,” Manny sings into his mug beside him.
“I don't know what it means, all right?” There’s an edge still in his voice, he can hear it. Her eyes had met his when she kissed her own scales plastered against his skin. Christ, he couldn't look away, he didn't ask her why, and he had only kissed her back. Frank leans forward on the seat and wipes at his face. “Just don't fucking touch me.”
His insides feel like they’re rearranging. Ice shivers down his back. The skin beneath the scales continues to tingle, spreading through his chest, and it helps him to focus on what’s going on around now.
In the silence that follows, Jimbo - sitting on a bar stool by the tiny stove across the room - makes an amused noise in his throat, his chin nodding high as he chews on a piece of bacon. “Karen liked you, man. That's what that means.”
Terry laughs shortly, too, pointing at Frank. “That’s from the mermaid, right? And she just gave it to you? That’s either gross as hell or straight-up magic.” He paces, shaking his head. “Shit. Is she still here? I’ll take that chance. Gotta be good luck. What are the odds here?”
Frank isn’t sure how to answer that, looking around the room. He sees their faces, sees the casual glances stare back at him. They know what she is. All of his efforts to protect her secret while on the ship - he’s not sure what he missed.
The look on his face must be evident as he rubs at his face again, feeling himself rock a bit under Curtis’ hands.
“We were thirty miles from shore when you found her, bro. Stranger things have happened.”
Jimbo points, snapping his fingers, his wide smile out of place but not unwelcome by the others. “Yeah, right, ‘cause we got aliens that one time.”
Curtis gently pulls back on the torn hoodie once again with a quiet chuckle when Frank clenches his teeth and grunts to agree, a bit calmer. David returns to the table with the medkit, picking through for salves and suture packs before handing them off to Curt.
He thinks back on what Terry had said. Good luck. Was it luck that set him on this path to her or had it been the inevitable war he’ll throw himself into? Could he even fathom the thought to consider both, when there’s a greater chance he’ll never see her again?
Frank feels Curtis poke out a thumb and briefly trace one of the scratches on his chest. He follows the inspection, the bloody red gashes now smooth, a few pink marks to replace them. There’s a moment where Curtis’ mouth twists in equal parts confusion and fascination, and he steps back, gaze flicking back to the scales.
His eyes close, tongue tasting the memory of Karen’s lips against his. Be careful. The words bounce, a shrill sound between his ears. Be careful. The worried look in her stare, the way her jaw set when she let him go. Be careful.
“That's… goddamn, man.”
It is a gift.
His right hand flexes, the right trigger finger reacting just behind.
There's a faint numbness to it all as he moves the rest of his fingers. The scratches she's left behind in the webbing and across the back of his hand have faded. Shiny white scars reflect back as he studies them in the fluorescent lighting of the small bathroom.
Frank takes the torn sweatshirt off, hearing the wet slap of it hit the tile before he grips at the sink. David stands in the doorway beside him, his gaze worrisome at best as he looks the rest of himself over in the mirror. The gnarly scar tissue of a bullet wound from his time in Afghanistan starts to turn a light pink - an old scar on his arm is becoming gray.
“You feel anything?” David asks, crossing his arms over his chest. They stay put for only a moment before a hand combs through the mop of curls by his forehead. His stare drifts across Frank's back and their eyes meet in the dusty reflection. He wonders what else he can see back there that he's not accounting for.
There's a confidence in his breathing as he lets the edges of his fingers slide over the bottom of Karen's scales. Another is the gentle and tingling pulse radiating from the spot of blue over his heart. There's a lot of rage, too, Frank wants to say. He absolutely knows now, with a simple swipe over the silvery ghosts of her own nails in his skin, what Fisk had wanted to do with her.
The air feels different when they hit the docks later that night.
It's the same, he knows - the stench of low tide, the cool rush of Spring at his neck, the way it carries the sounds from the main road as the six of them haul coolers of fish and beer back to cars waiting in the lot. But there's a familiar weight to it, now.
Off the water and onto pavement, Frank lets it in, reminding himself of the last time he felt air this heavy. People died, then, too.
David offers to drive him to the diner near the lighthouse where his truck had been parked Friday night.
“Why don’t you just take them off?” he asks, nodding his head towards Frank’s chest when they arrive. His hand drops down to his lap. He’s since changed into a dark Henley and dried out his jeans after the morning’s event, and is aware of how many times he’s reached for them. He’s almost glad his jacket is zipped high enough to hide the rest of the scales that peek from the edge of his shirt.
Bright red neon from the diner’s OPEN sign reflects off the side of his face when he pushes the old Mustang’s door open. He sighs for a moment in the passenger seat, wading through his question as he gathers his bag. “Same reasons she gave’em to me, I guess.”
David looks concerned, tapping at the steering wheel before glancing at him again. “You sure you’re gonna be okay?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I’m gonna grab a bite, figure some of this out.” Frank slams the door shut and pats the roof. “Just get back to me as soon as you can with his location, or one of his new spots, all right? I got this.” He makes it halfway up the stairs to head into the diner when he hears the window crank down.
“Hey,” David points, “you think she’d be able to babysit for me this weekend?”
“I just keep food in the fridge for her, yeah? I’m not her keeper, you’ll have to ask the kid yourself.”
It's after he sits down in a faded red booth lining the windows of the quiet restaurant and glances at the specials menu that he sees David’s car drive away.
He hears the waitress arrive from the kitchen behind him. The door swings back and forth, wafting scents of fried potatoes and seasoned chicken in his direction. “Listen here, buddy,” she says tiredly and low. A pen clicks erratically in her left hand. “All we have right now is decaf. It's late.”
“You’re such a shit liar,” Frank shakes his head with a scoff, lifting the mug set on the table for her to pour into. He looks at her then, catching the small bags beneath her eyes and a little bit of powdered sugar on her cheek. Her usual bouncy ponytail is falling. “I’m gonna need my keys, too.”
“What,” the young brunette says, “you’re gonna make me walk home? Rude.” With a pass over her ear to pull a bushy tendril back, she pours black coffee into his cup and then digs into her apron. They jingle and clatter on the vinyl and he catches them as they slide across.
“You see me leaving?” For good measure, he takes a sip. It’s a fresh pot, and tastes better than what they’d been drinking on the boat.
“Fine.” She relaxes and regards him for a moment, popping her hip out before scribbling the pen onto her order pad. A smile creeps across her lip then, and she kicks her foot against the wooden base of his seat. “You catch us any fish?”
Frank grunts and shakes his head, laughing bitterly to himself. The only catch - and release - he managed this weekend had been Karen. There's no chance he'll tell her about the dead guy they pulled on deck right now, either.
The cooler they still packed for him is forgotten in David's trunk.
He swallows more coffee as a response and she takes that as a cue to walk back to where she came, her eyes rolling once and her voice carrying out his usual order to the cook. The swinging door flaps loudly as it moves back and forth when she disappears.
He slides the duffel bag off his shoulder to the empty space beside him and shivers with unsettled horror as he feels a piece of the scales stretch and pull against his skin so quickly it tears away from whatever is left plastered beneath his shirt. Frank groans in disbelief, leaning back in the booth and spreading out. His head hits the soft back of the seat and he hears himself sigh. Not even a full twelve hours with him, he thinks, and he's already destroyed what Karen had given.
Hesitantly, he reaches into his jacket for it, holding it in his fingers. The separated piece is three fingers wide as it is long, and feels leathery, now that it had dried well enough to his chest. It still shimmers with the same dark blue glow her legs had, and Frank runs his thumb across it, watching the iridescence dance against the dim lighting of the diner. He knows realistically that this would be only be temporary, but he had no idea it’d be so soon.
There’s a moment where he allows himself a weak attempt to press it back against his collarbone. It hangs limp, warm from his skin, before he leans forward to rub at his face. A muffled, incredulous laugh leaves his throat at the thought of the effort Fisk has been taking with Karen’s scales. It’s angry, and his stomach burns, building deep in his chest. If he’s using mermaid scales to outfit himself to be impervious to his enemies, Frank thinks he’s got another thing coming.
With another stroke of his thumb over the thin blue piece, he hears the kitchen door swing and a plate clatter onto the table - late night scrambled eggs and crispy bacon. “Thanks, Amy,” he says, watching as she sighs, sliding herself into the opposite booth and chewing on a triangle of his sourdough toast. Frank quickly tucks the soft blue piece up the sleeve of his jacket, out of sight.
Although to his irritation, the move isn’t missed. She points at him with the longer edge of the slice when he moves in on his eggs. “Where’s the setting for that?” Amy starts to pull her ponytail, biting down on the bread to keep her hands free. Her eyes are squinting, suspicious as she continues, untying her apron from around her waist. She rips the toast from her teeth after she yanks off the plain red cotton, chucking it away into the window ledge next to her. “Where did you even get counterfeit green?”
Frank sets down his fork and chews through the eggs. “What?”
“Why would you even need counterfeit green,” she continues to mutter. “Aren’t you like, loaded or something? You could just get the regular kind.”
“Regular kind? The fuck is counterfeit green?” Amy points to his right wrist. The tip of Karen’s scale is peeking through, and almost immediately he moves to lower it out of sight. There’s still other people around. He points below the table at it too, adjusting his jacket just as much over his wrist that he does next for his collar. Jesus. “This is blue,” he admits quietly.
“Yeah,” she lingers, dragging out the word. “Hence the term counterfeit, Frank. Meaning fake.” He clenches his teeth when she goes for his dish again, carefully breaking a long strip of bacon in two, and then once long-ways. Frank sets his arm around the plate to stop any more theft. She always does this. “How’d you get it without, like, a chain or something? They make’em all nice and pretty before they sell them.”
Sell them? “Kid, what are you even talking about? You’re not making sense. A...” His brow furrows slightly. How does he even explain to her who Karen is in this situation, holy shit. “A uh... friend of mine gave this to me.”
“Well, that friend is giving you some straight up crap, okay? Do you remember last year, when those guys had me do some catering jobs?”
He does. She'd been serving finger foods with her friends at a conference hall in Queens. The distinct scent of blood in his nose and the way the guy's skull had bounced against the pavement when Frank crashed into her life echoes in his memory. He nods.
“So, one of those, before, was for this new art gallery opening.” She’s already retrieving her light pink phone case from her back pocket, thumbs tapping wildly over the touchscreen and she rolls her eyes at his confused expression. “Lemme show you, they released it then.” Amy slides her phone towards him. On the screen is a website for a luxury brand of jewelry made from rare materials.
Rare materials, he reads, with distinctly familiar aquatic patterns.
“This is the Green line. This is that ultra expensive, fancy stuff. Platinum settings and all that, right? The bougie, rich people kind.”
And it had been made to sell exclusively in small batches at the shows hosted by Vanessa Fisk.
“See, it’s a fake,” she reaches over and taps at the edge of the screen. “Green has more green than blue in it. You’ve got one with more blue than green.”
They're on their way back to the lighthouse.
“Tell me again,” Frank demands, his eyes wide and on the road. He weaves through the late night traffic, running through an open intersection with a glance out the side windows. Amy is silent, her teeth bared, a fist tight on her coat and one squeezing the seatbelt. His fingers snap in her direction a few times. “C'mon, go over it again.”
She sighs, kicking up her foot onto the seat and turning to face him. "Okay. But like I said, it was a year ago.” Her hand goes to grab at the Coke in the cup holder, and she takes a sip before she chews on the straw. He knows she knows she’s pushing him to an edge - there’s no sense of urgency with her. She taps out each thing she says like it’s a checklist on her fingers as he takes another turn in the direction of the docks. “Did the catering thing for an art gallery. They kept talking about this cute new jewelry line Mrs. Fisk was revealing at the show. Okay? She then reveals said jewelry line. It is in fact… not cute. Then those obnoxious motherscratchers steal my tips again - ”
“Kid,” his eyes are hard, and he can feel his teeth clenching further.
“What else do you want me to say, Frank? We went over this. She made some earrings, and some bulky bracelets, and this awful, gaudy-looking green and platinum choker set, oh my gosh it was super tacky.” He glances her way as she adjusts her legs again in the seat before slowing to a stop at his first red light. “Definitely not my style, let me tell you.”
Jewelry? He tries to let the thought soak in. Really? Everything that asshole put Karen through, and it was for a couple pairs of fucking earrings?
His knuckles tighten over the wheel. Amy peeks when the leather begins to groan in the silence.
“But you saw them,” he says after a moment. The cabin of the truck jerks with a quick step on the gas as he moves them into the street when the light changes green, and his face turns to her, nodding once. “You were in the room with them when they announced the whole thing.”
Her arm lifts away from her knee and her head bounces off the headrest before she pinches the space between her eyes. “Yes, again.” She gives him a harsh stare as he throws his blinker on to take a right towards the docks. Her voice is tired. He’s tired. They’re both exhausted. “Why -”
Karen’s scratchy choke and breathless pleas for him to understand - to see - flash before his eyes, and then it’s all he can hear. I’m more blue than green.
And he can’t even tell her.
“Fisk,” Frank says, now wary of how she trails off. “What was he doing?” He gets them up the long rocky drive at the end of the road, spotting the tower’s beacon just ahead. His left knee starts to jiggle. The sound of the gravel beneath the truck bed gets louder as they creep closer.
“Well besides being in the usual, pompous, I’m so great, rich guy mood?” She’s silent again, and he looks over to see her deep in thought. It’s been a year, he’ll give her another minute. Those catering jobs had been one and the same to him up until this point. The motion detector lights on the porch flicker on as they get close and he gets a good look at the quizzical furrow in her brow. “What’s going on,” she says suddenly. “What aren’t you telling me?”
Frank has to clench his teeth and turn his head away before he shifts into park when the headlights illuminate the faded red side of the garage to the old keeper house. His grip on the scales when they fall from their spot on his wrist is tight, and Amy is still looking at him when she unbuckles and hops out from her side of the truck.
He’s got to call David, he knows that much.
“You weren't this crazy when you left Friday night.
“Stop that.” He meets her at the front of the truck, a thumb briefly rubbing against the scales still clinging to his chest. There’s an echoing burn from her words. “Enough, all right? You know I’m not.”
He spots her throwing her head back towards the dark sky to groan dramatically, but she continues. “The guy was just generally proud of her, from what I remember. He supplied the materials, and Green had been this limited-time-only thing that came out of it.”
It doesn’t matter that there’s a slight chance Fisk doesn’t know about the healing powers in the scales. He’s still gonna die. To have done the things he did? For how long Karen had been healing - her bruises, the blood. Fuck, just the look on her face when she told him what happened.
Amy swings her set of house keys around a finger. “It was actually kind of sweet.”
He’s already dead.
Amy left early to meet a friend at the diner for breakfast.
David's got half of a thumbprint cookie in his mouth while he types like a madman on his laptop. Frank paces the back deck with his fourth cup of coffee, steady with focus as he listens to the erratic clack clack of keys. The morning sun shines, warm across the span of his back as he spots the waves crash against the rocks at the bottom of the dock.
The new information from the kid helps narrow down the paper trail to a few warehouses previously owned by businesses that have since disappeared. David states they're not so much disappeared, than they are forgotten and lost to record keeping. Shell company inside one to another, he says, and so on.
Frank feels like he’s carving a trench in the dark wood below his boots as he continues to tread back and forth. He's half a mind to go inside and start cleaning his gun - because at least the chore makes him feel more useful than this. “What else you got?”
“I'm working on building from Fisk's schedule. Car service, restaurant expenses, y'know, it's all in here.” His eyes peek away from the screen to look him over again, lingering high on Frank's chest where Karen's scales are hiding beneath his Henley. “That guy's funeral is tomorrow,” he says after a moment. “Autopsy came back, the file was officially posted with drowning as the cause.”
Frank considers the words as he surveys the Hudson River in his cliffside backyard, sipping from the mug in his hands. Karen's face had looked so angry, her words tight. He deserved more. He turns a bit to face him with a slightly amused lift to his mouth and a short nod in agreement. “Yeah,” he mutters. “Yeah, she did mention that.”
“James Wesley was mutilated, though,” David says factually, reaching for another cookie off the plate in front of him. “He was alive that whole time?”
The breeze picks up a bit before the sliding glass door opens to the kitchen and Amy greets them. She's got a to-go container in one hand and the other is shoving the door closed as she steps out. “Who was alive?”
“No one,” Frank tells her dismissively, shaking his head and settling into one of the patio chairs by David. She doesn't need to worry about him more than she does already. The kid sets a glare towards him, and he eyes her right back. She pulls out her own chair across from him, leaning back enough to teeter and turn her face to the sky. “Stop that,” he grunts, reaching for the food container. Thinking maybe bacon, a cold pancake, or a half-eaten egg sandwich is available to steal from her, he pops the lid. “What's left?”
David responds at the same time she does, turning the laptop his way, and her head lowers to meet his eyes, her finger pointing -
“I narrowed… I found the place, I'm just not sure -”
“Oh, that's not - I texted Fiona about that stuff last night and she gave me -”
Inside the to-go box is a decorative armlet with a shiny platinum setting. It's thin, with the metal shaped into a collection of leaves. Deep green scales are locked on top with a resin, the shimmer of them now a faint likeness to what is still against his chest.
It's heavy when he takes it out and holds it in his palm. David sits up to get a closer look and breathes out quickly. Frank scrubs a hand over his face with disbelief, hearing himself groan. This was real, though. Green, he notes as he turns it - one way, and then another against the sunshine - with some blue mixed in, just like she said.
“Jesus Christ.” He looks to the kid, her eyes low and brows furrowed with inquiry while his thumb runs the length of the metal. Cold, he recalls Karen's words again. “This?” He waves the armlet in her direction. “This is dangerous.” Frank briefly wonders if the scales could still hold their healing powers while layered in resin and slapped in an expensive setting. Or if Fisk's wife had just asked for more, and that's why he wouldn't let Karen go when he found her.
“Now you tell me,” her hands hit the table and she nods. “Okay.”
A thumbnail traces one of the stems, and he has to bite down on the urge to try and snap them with a bend of his hand. His voice is a low growl when he speaks. “Can I keep this?”
Amy waves her arm with barely a care, reaching for one of the thumbprints. “It’s for you,” she tells him.
“Frank, I found it,” David repeats. “Timestamps, delivery dates, the blueprints, all of it. I got it. Are you… You sure you wanna do this?”
He shuts his eyes for only a moment, the memory of Karen's fingers tracing his cheek after their dive coming forward. It'd been such a comforting touch, her concern soaking into his muscles - the bones - with each soft drip of water off his brow. The feeling of her tail wrapped tightly around his thigh, bringing him in close, her fin brushing past his ankle. Words echo in his ears as bright and clear as the water looked now. You're okay, she had told him. She had been so confident and sure - he wants that for her, too.
He shoves the armlet into his jeans pocket. “Yeah, yeah, I made her a promise.”
Amy tries to meet anyone's eyes as she sits up straight in her seat at the comment. “Whoa, who?”
David sighs, pulling at his hair and baring his teeth with no regard to her outburst. “Yeah, no, I know, but this whole thing’s got nothing to do with you.”
“I thought this was a guys getaway. What happened this weekend?”
“Don't give me that bullshit, David. This piece of shit is going after her, you know, he's gonna just keep coming.”
Hesitantly, and only after taking a deep breath, he hits a button on the keyboard, and sends him everything. Frank's phone vibrates in his pocket.
It's a water-rotted building at the end of the docks.
Frank looks through the scope on his rifle from across the street, groaning loud when there’s not much more to see from the large windows than black curtains. He hangs back for a few moments, debating his decision to wait for Fisk’s arrival to hit him there on the roof or if he should find somewhere to hang out in the rafters of the old building.
Gunshots pop pop pop inside the warehouse. He grabs for a few guns from his weapons bag - the decision made for him.
The ground floor windows on the ocean side are deeply salted from sea spray, and the wood panels nearest the bottom of the boathouse have been eaten away. It’s near impossible to see anything beyond the crust. He hears the shouts of protest, the demands to stay back, hey, don’t - and he manages to quietly break the lock on the side of the boathouse garage.
Inside, the narrow docks are flooded from high tide. Frank slides the door shut, leaving him alone to the darkness. He hears the ocean lap loudly against the edge, where the entrance to the rest of the warehouse is located.
Where’d she go?
The shaky voice is fading - just inside the warehouse, their footsteps marching away, further from the door separating them from him. His boots splash in puddles as he leans his back to the wall, trying to stay out of sight from the window in the wooden door.
A shadow casts over the glass soon after, a guard attempting to peer into the boathouse. The knob rattles a bit before it opens, and Frank waits - for the body to come into view, for the brief check of whatever weaponry the guy’s holding. A gun rises off his hip - his eye aligning with the scope. It scans the water slowly. “You in here?” The man breathes heavily, stepping into a puddle. “You stupid little goldfish?”
“Just me,” Frank growls, reaching to knock the gun out of his hands from his spot behind the door. It’s when he wraps his arm around the guy’s neck and tightens does the realization dawn on the guard’s face about what’s going to happen. His fingers dig into Frank’s wrist, clawing as he chokes on a shout.
This part he can live with, he thinks as he leans in. Shh, shh, shh. It’s gonna keep her safe. He feels the pressure release, hearing the harsh crunch of a neck shattering under his hold. The guard’s struggling arm goes slack, and he falls to the ground. He drops him with a splash.
The two others he can see in the next room wander, their whispers together hushed and shaking. Did you see where she went?
He can see rows of tables. There’s an assembly line of forgotten hand tools, assorted metal presses, and barrels of resin mixtures. The place is deserted. With no mermaid, there’s no business.
It’s the raised platform in the back center of the room, though, that breaks his composure for a second - that gets a shaky breath out of him. A half-empty glass tank of water sits on top, holding a deep crack running through one side and across another. The fishbowl. With a closer inspection, he spots a poorly cleaned blood stain off the edge. The spatter trails to the floor, and the tile around the area is pink from an evidently lazy scrub. Wesley, he hopes, but he’s not optimistic enough. He remembers how deep her wounds had been.
Frank moves his way past the entry, disappearing into a corner of fresh barrels, into shadows where the high windows can’t find him, where the group of guards mingling at the other end can’t catch him. The area cuts back from the wall, hiding a narrow stairway to the catwalk overhead. He takes two stairs at a time, eyeing the top for a spot to linger and set up his gun. David’s notes told a story of how Fisk would be visiting the facility at some point that day, so he makes a mental checklist for -
He trips over a body.
It’s dark enough in the stairwell that something like this shouldn’t come as a surprise to him, but the groan as his boot steps down onto the man’s bare leg is loud enough to get his heart pumping and his hand reaching for his pistol. There’s broken glass - lightbulbs, and part of a window somewhere, he notices - littered on the steps. “Hey,” Frank grunts, resetting the boot back onto his knee to keep the man on the stair. A muffled crunch of glass causes the man to hiss in pain. He cocks the gun.
His eyes adjust to the dark after a moment, and the older man on the edge of the stair waves a hand his way. “Please, don’t. I… My glasses,” he’s not wearing any - “I can’t see for the life of me,” he says with a whisper. “And… and that thing…” his panic trails off into a disbelieving whimper. “She left me without my pants.”
That thing. He can feel his lip turn, scowling.
The guy’s without pants. He sees that. The wave of his pasty arm tells him that he’s without a proper shirt, too. Plus the guy’s unarmed, the broken glass pieces around him seem too small to grip. “Talk,” he says low, letting his back touch the stairwell.
Frank grinds his boot further when the man hesitates, and he quickly bends to cover his mouth as he cries out. “All right, okay, okay.” He breathes heavy, looking down the stairs before Frank grabs a hold of his chin to make him look his way instead. His fingers divot in the fat of his cheeks. “Okay! Jees, I’m just the accountant!”
“Keep your voice down,” he growls, bending into a crouch and pushing the old man’s head back to be flush with the wooden wall.
“I keep... the files are kept upstairs,” he starts. “Finances, numbers, you see, so I was coming down and she just… she, she came back, just came up from nowhere, tore my suit, and knocked me out.” His eyes spin, still in a daze. “Christ, this is embarrassing.”
Frank shoves him back, dropping his hold. He’s still got on an undershirt and he’s been left in briefs, with his shoes still on. There’s a plum-sized bruise growing just under his jowl. He nearly smiles.
“There’s no way I can leave now when people are still -”
“Shut up,” he says, standing and tucking away the gun and stepping over him. “You know where she went?”
The old man points back downstairs, and Frank nods. What a pathetic piece of shit, he thinks. He kicks across the guy’s cheek and watches him crumble against the wall, mouth open, his eyes closing. He moves up the staircase.
From the catwalk, he’s able to see the entirety of the warehouse. His steps are careful, the metal walkway groaning under the pressure. He ducks out of sight, keeping a count of the guns below. The room is built around the tank and the closer someone could get to the outer wall is the closer they’d get to a shipping box. Frank spots three guards walking the line. One fiddles with a few switches after a moment, hitting buttons - the metal presses being activated. A loud hiss runs through the room as the machines whirr, the molds at work.
He counts a few more picking with the abandoned hand tools, chains clattering against tables. There’s a light and easy chatter, some laughter, even. It’s only after he hears a soft slap against the floor does he look across to the windows. A wary blonde in baggy gray dress pants rocks from bare foot to foot, grabbing a lab coat off a row of hooks on the wall and throwing her arms into the sleeves. Her damp hair is tied high into a ponytail with a dark green scarf, and she turns to face the rest of the room. She’s got the old man’s glasses on the tip of her nose, her shirt buttoned lopsidedly. He sees her.
She’s not gonna fool anyone with that outfit, Jesus Christ.
He wanted to get this done and over with before she risked even more exposure. How long has she been here?
At this vantage point, he’s able to cover the other exits in the room, and spot where other doors lead to. Frank starts to unload his rifle from his back. She looks up and she sees him. Her eyes widen, her mouth opening with horror. “No!”
A shock runs through him from the side of the neck. Pain strikes every nerve from the tip of his tongue to his knees, down through to his toes. His teeth clench tight. Frank falls back - stiff - knuckles turning white as his hands form to fists. He tries counting the seconds that pass, to remember his training, but it feels like it’s never ending. It takes him a moment but he recognizes the voice at his ear as his arms fall limp and his eyes start to close from the pain. Fight it, fight it.
“It doesn’t work on her outside of the tank,” the old man whispers, pocketing his stun gun and grabbing at one of Frank’s legs. Fight it. There are shouts to stop right there and don’t come any closer, you hear me, from the guards below. Guns cock at the ready - bullets fly - ricocheting off the machines. His arm reaches, slow, his knife is tucked just behind his back - his whole body screams at him, shaking from the stun. He can’t - he’s tugged back down the stairwell. “But for you…”
The scents of salt water and soot reach his nose first as he wakes. With every deep inhale, the bulletproof vest squeezes, unmoving. He should have killed the old man, he thinks, struggling to extend his fingers. Frank’s head rests against a lap, his legs sprawled out at the bottom of the stairs. Fingers stroke through his hair, and he can smell it all now. Fire. The gunpowder. Blood, somewhere. There’s always blood.
Karen gently pats at the kevlar. He opens his eyes to see her fingernails are crusted and red again. Her mouth turns flat and she’s not looking back at him. “I said be careful, Frank.”
“You okay?” His arm lifts against the residual shock, feeling out for hers, checking for any wounds. The iron in his nose is too strong. He can nearly taste it. “They didn’t hurt you?”
“No,” she whispers, worrying her lip, her eyes chasing whatever is beyond the barrels they seem to be hiding behind. “No, but I… I did this.”
“Attagirl,” he mutters, grunting softly before looking around. There’s a fire burning off in some corner of the warehouse, no one is chasing them, and they’re both alive. She did do this.
He bends a leg to allow himself to sit next to her, and a sharp pain hits him against his thigh before he can get up. Karen’s hand slides from its place on his chest to just above his knee, and she breathes out slowly. Frank watches her grip a piece of curved glass wedged deep in his jeans and doesn’t pause when she rips it from his skin. He groans, teeth bared as he breathes through it. The glass from the stairs. Pressure releases, and blood trickles, darkening a trail up his thigh. He hears the scratchy clink of it landing when he moves his back to the wall and she adds it to a pile beside her. Fresh stains cover her fingers, reddening the old rust color already caking on her knuckles. The blood in his nose had been his own.
“Thank you,” he tells her. He’s grateful. There are more pieces, though, and he can see where else she had been pulling before he woke up. The still body of the old man lays further up the dark staircase.
“Do not,” she says tiredly, grinding her teeth.
The back of her hand swipes just above her eye, streaking blood across her temple and on one of the metal arms of the glasses she still wears. It is just so utterly familiar - here, in this moment - that he nearly chuckles in relief. He reaches to guide his thumb across her face to remove it, and catches her gaze just as his hand shakes from the aftershock. Karen sighs a bit, her mouth quivering before looking away, back to the rest of the room. She doesn’t deny the touch.
As he strokes past her ear and against her hair, Frank only realizes now that the green scarf she used to tie it up hadn’t been a scarf at all. She curls her knees up and rests her head upon her arms, turning to watch him while his finger trails lazily through the ponytail at her back. He can’t stop the small lift of his mouth, the way his eyes soften for a moment as he looks at her. It’s seaweed.
He’s struck with the thought that he didn’t actually think he’d ever see her again when she left the morning before. Their days had been numbered from the start. He knew it. She knew it. And yet here they were -
“Nothing,” he says gently, dropping his hand to his lap. Frank looks out into the warehouse, watching smoke billow out from one of the open windows high up near the ceiling. He pulls at the shards in his lower legs. The fire grows, and there are a few distant shouts to put it out. He won’t hesitate to let the whole place burn down - good fucking riddance - and he figures there’s still time for the two of them to get out of there safely if she wanted. He’ll carry her out himself, if she doesn’t.
Karen adjusts the eyeglasses when they slide down her face. “I tried to hide,” she tells him in the quiet. “Make me look like Jimbo,” her fingers tap against the frames, then falls to the curve of her knees. “Try… try to blend in, like on the boat.”
Frank considers this.
Considers the warehouse, the idea, the lab coat. The fresh set of legs. He glances briefly at her high ponytail, the seaweed hair tie draping past her shoulders, and the pale gray shirt with the uneven buttons. “It might have worked, yeah, if you looked anything like Jimbo.” On her wrist is the old man’s watch, which reminds him -
Her face tilts to the side, huffing with light irritation. “Frank -”
“Can you see with those?” He begins to rip into his tactical gear, pulling velcro, feeling for the cool metal of the platinum armband he tucked away. This was part of an idea he had earlier, to leave it where she could find it, if he got here before she did. To lay it across Fisk’s corpse, he thinks, or making it even simpler, and letting it hang from the doorknob of the boathouse after it was all done.
But she was here, now. Here, on the floor in the corner of a warehouse she had been held against her will in, with bloody hands and a dark determination that greatly rivaled his own. She should ultimately know why she had been taken , at least. He can give that to her.
Karen pulls her glasses down by the bridge, letting them fall. Frank hears them clatter to the floor when he pulls the jewelry out. Her eyes catch the leaves, the gentle curve and the immense shine, and her hand hovers over his to take it before she claps both over her mouth. “What… how? Oh no -” Recognition and horror cast over her face.
“This is what he’s been up to, all right,” he whispers quickly. The ice of the platinum finish is a stark difference to the warmth of her skin as he pulls at her wrist to give it to her. She inhales a sob, her face turning away. Frank feels her fingers curl over the piece, murmuring incoherently. “This is what they fished you out for.”
Her breath is shaky as she leans into the barrel beside her, muffling herself, the solemn wail deep in her chest becoming a shiver up his spine. “They took him,” she struggles to say after a moment. Her knuckles turn white as she brings the armlet in close to her chest. “They… I know these, Frank. His… his colors...”
He knows it’s not enough, and half of him is sorry he even said it. At some point, apologies become so foreign to the ear it’s hard to even figure they’re really words anymore. Still, he reaches for her knee and squeezes, listening to it all fade out as she mourns her brother a second time. The hitch of a watery gasp, the distant crackling burn of wood, the whoorrsh of a few fire extinguishers. The way she whimpers so softly, looking at everything but what she holds in her hand.
Karen wipes hard at her face again before she’s shoving the piece back towards him. Her fingernails are as sharp as her words. “What is it,” she demands. “What does it do?”
“It uh… Nothing.” Frank fumbles with the hinge, watching the faded shimmer of green scales reflect the light. It pops open. “You just… you wear it,” he says, hesitantly clasping it just above her elbow when she presents it to him. She recoils only slightly when it clicks into place, and he can see the goosebumps rise up on her skin. Her knees shake as she pushes herself further against the wall. It’s lifeless, he thinks. Lifeless and cold. Metallic and dead.
“Do you -” he starts to ask, watching her breathe heavily past her hand and close her eyes. His theory over the scales eats at him. “Maybe Fisk knows what they can do? That -”
Her head shakes wildly before she can look back at him. She glances down at the green, petting the leaf shape of resin that covers her brother’s scales. “No… no they would never have worked for him, even if he did know.”
“Because I didn’t give them,” Karen says through her teeth, bringing her forehead down to touch the metal. “Even when... when we die,” she continues, turning her face to him, then towards his legs. There are still glass shards buried deep in his thigh. It is an excruciatingly slow pace, but he can feel his skin being pulled from the inside to push them out. The bleeding in the spots they’ve pulled out by hand are already sealing up. “With Kevin - they would not work. Taken is not given.”
The fire on the other side of the room could not burn as hot as her fury, but the embers creeping in close will get to them regardless. They have to leave. They have to make it to tomorrow. They can make a better plan of attack somewhere else - anywhere else but the floor of a burning warehouse. Frank steals another glance her way as he moves his sidearm to his lap, readying himself against his lacerations to move. The adrenaline only starts to kick in when she shakes her head. “Karen, we can’t stay here.”
“No. No, he’ll be here -”
“It’s not safe. We have to leave, yeah? We can -”
“- Frank, the men with guns, when I knocked them down -”
“- find him somewhere else, you know, we can - I can -”
“- they saw me - listen, okay, so he’ll come and I’ll have him -”
“- keep you safe while we figure this out.”
“- right here.”
“Karen…” he repeats, shaking his head as she points to his wounds. She would rather him not push it any further than he’s already done, it seems. Stubborn, and definitely unlikely. He’ll hold out as long as they have to, then. Fire at their heels, if they have to. This is her mission, and he gets that, but it’s his mission to keep her safe. Frank rocks his head to the side to meet her gaze, and he catches her already staring back. “All right.”
She smiles at him, a little sad in the eyes as she presses a hand into his shoulder. Her thumb traces the ball of muscle before sliding her fingers to rest at the back of his neck, and without a second thought he leans a little into it. Frank can feel his pulse race in his ear at her touch before she gasps lightly, her other hand coming up to hold her neck. She yanks at it, pulling a dart. He watches her place it slowly down in her lap, her hand falling further - thudding heavily against the floor. The hand on his neck slides away, limp as it leaves him cold. He can see her trying to look at him, her gaze full of alarm and off focus, beyond him.
A dart hits him in the shoulder.
“Karen? Hey. Hey, stay with me, okay?” He cups the side of her face with one hand when her eyes flutter and roll, her body going slack. “Hey -” Frank reaches for his pistol with the other, turning to take aim at whoever took the shot.
It happens quick. The tranquilizer has buried itself in his skin and his hold on her fails. She drops to a crumpled heap beside the barrels like a ragdoll. He fights even harder to stay awake this time, catching a man in a lab coat matching Karen’s adjusting a dart gun on his arm a few yards away. The larger man beside him steps closer into the corner.
His hands stay clasped behind his back, his mouth a smug line as Frank’s own eyelids start to flutter. He’s starting to get a headache in the struggle, and the way the man moves with such ease makes him feel like he’s staring at another nightmare in slow motion. “Leland had told me you were here, Mr. Castle. Thank you so much for bringing her back.”
No, no no no.
Frank’s vision swims, his eyes are heavy - and his finger pops the trigger once, twice, with one last bit of energy. He’s been holding his breath, he realizes, and feels his cheek rest against Karen’s hair when his body reacts further to the toxin - collapsing next to her - his arm dropping fast.
Shit, what was in that sedative?
The shine from the lights overhead is bright, and he registers that they reflect off Fisk’s bald head before his eyes close.
He should have killed that old man, not her. He knew -
“We’ll get someone to look at it, you should be fine,” he hears Fisk say. “For now, just get her in there. We have work to do.”
Frank comes to in a chair.
His hands are zip-tied to it, feeling the nylon bite into the skin on his wrists as he pulls. The scent of smoke is heavy, but the fire is gone when he opens his eyes to look. His weapons are missing. There is a moment he spends to focus on his growing headache, watching the ceiling spin as he breathes a few times through his nose. Keep breathing, keep breathing. Enough oxygen in his system should help speed through the disorientation.
He spots Fisk pacing just ahead of him, fidgeting with his cufflinks.
A few of the guards from before are bruised - beaten from Karen’s offensive take - clearing out fire extinguishers and bringing in towels to pick up the foam off the ground. Frank can hear them mutter their own grievances after they shout to the others standing at the exit doors to help. He chances a glance as far as his neck would let him to make a note.
Fisk has him planted in front of the fishbowl tank. He can see Karen lying unconscious in her own chair on the platform beyond the glass, the Lab Coat tech beside her on a stepstool, pushing with a pained hiss at the metal lid to open it.
The entire length of the guy’s right arm is covered in blood, and he can see browning handprints on the coat from where the guy tried to stop the bleeding. Karen’s splattered with them too, her gray shirt covered in a stain. He’s decidedly not fine, Frank thinks with a tilt of his lip. He’s bleeding out - and fast. Got him pretty good, too, because he’s dripping on the floor now.
But he missed his original target, and that’s what makes him clench his teeth and pull at the restraints again. It catches their attention.
“I love my wife, Mr. Castle. I do. I would do anything for Vanessa.” Fisk’s eyes survey the warehouse before turning back to him. “I wanted to show her in all the ways I could. Something unique, I thought. When my crew found our first mer… thing, I knew it was the way to go. But we had a limited supply of our last batch.
“A living mermaid… you see, we found she can heal in layers. Her scales keep their shine, and her colors -” his hand wavers as Frank yanks at the cable ties, a small grunt escaping his mouth. “They’re more vibrant.”
His head rolls to the side to follow Fisk’s steps.
“My wife loved her surprise. I wanted to give her more. Blue will be that, I’m sure of it.”
“That’s what you think you’re gonna do, huh? Let her go.”
“Those wounds of yours could kill you, Mr. Castle,” he tells him after a silent lap, tapping a finger to his chin. A fist is at his side, his knuckles white as he surveys the blood and glass in Frank’s jeans. He points. “They look painful.”
Frank glances back at the platform. Karen’s attached to wires leading to machines nearby, and an array of metal tools are lined up next to her. He watches the lab tech struggle to lift her out from her chair. Watches him drag her across the floor and over the stepstool to get her to the fishbowl. Blonde hair skates across the surface of the water in the tank as she hangs part of the way in, an arm limp to the side. Frank breathes in heavily again, his vision finally clearing, his mind filtering through all the ways he could kill a man with his bare hands.
“Let her go,” he repeats.
“I will… I will hate to see a decorated war hero like yourself perish for such a subpar reason.”
He scoffs a laugh. This fucking guy.
His chin drops to his chest, feeling the scales still at work. The slow inch of glass being pushed out, the skin knitting itself back together beneath it. A large slice near his thigh sticks out, and Frank moves his knee against the chair, bouncing with impatience, imagining that he can grasp it with his tied hand.
“Did you hate when that Wesley guy perished, too?” Fisk leans further from him, his eyes beady with hatred, mouth pulling for a grimace. Frank shoves his chin high to catch his gaze again. Anything to carry on the distraction. She’s still unconscious up there. He figures he won’t have to wait longer for a weapon if his reach is good. “You read that report, right? You get to see his body yet? I saw his body. Mangled piece of shit.”
“Enough,” he barks.
“D’you uh... you count how many times -”
His fist collides with his cheekbone, but it doesn’t stop the chuckle from leaving Frank’s throat. If this was this guy’s version of simple torture, he considers it poor.
It almost soothes his headache to watch her finally wake when the tech gives her a shove off the edge and she splashes in with a yelp. Karen’s tail forms quickly while she spins in the narrow space, the deep blue color revealed when she struggles, when she shakes out of the stolen pants. He hadn’t been able to see it at all when they were last together - the lighter blue in her fluke, the underlying green shimmer, the tiny fins just below her hip - but he knows now that he could never have imagined how beautiful it would actually be.
She cries out as her hand presses flat against the glass beside her head, her eyes widening and her teeth bared. Her long tail bashes against the wall of the tank - hard. Once rattles the metal hinges holding everything together. Twice lets them all hear the crack on one side of the fishbowl expand. Fisk turns and walks away from him to see the commotion, his head to the side, sighing. “Use the stick this time,” he commands to the guy on the platform when he steps closer. “We have a business to finally get back to.”
The lab tech stumbles on the stool on his way up to the tank, a long rod in his hands. The buzz of electricity hits his ears as Karen screams beneath the surface, Leland’s words loud at the front of his mind. Frank locks up a fist and pulls, groaning to himself when she suddenly becomes silent.
The chunk of window in his thigh is protruding enough now to touch, and his hand tugs the rest of it out with a few quick breaths and a soft squelch. He can feel the scales strip from his skin at the edges as they continue to work. Frank saws at a cable tie, hearing it snap. He goes to work on the other three limbs, eyeing the guards across the way to -
There’s a splash.
It’s violent. The stunner clatters off the edge and to the floor, and Karen drags the tech under. His arm is high in the air, trying to hold on to something. He claws for purchase at the glass to escape, his screams echoing in the warehouse. Karen’s got a hand on his neck though, her tail wrapped around his leg, keeping him flush with the tank.
Frank nods towards Karen and the water when Fisk roars in frustration. “She’s subpar, huh?”
She digs her nails in when he begins to kick out at her, when the guards in the room turn their attention on the fishbowl.
The one at the back door creeps forward in defense, gun aimed at her while another shouts for orders. He doesn’t notice he’s loose as he steps beside the chair.
Frank takes the rifle offline, stabbing him just below the helmet, feeling the sharp edge of the glass slide like butter through the skin. With a turn and harsh rip back, he watches him fall - watches the blood begin to rapidly puddle on the floor. Watches the prickling cuts caused from gripping tight on his fingers heal just as quickly as they came. He takes aim with his new weapon at the others and fires.
Fisk dodges out of the way as bullets fly from each direction, and heads to the platform. Bullets cross and a few hit the tank, the crack expanding, the water starting to leak. Karen gives a shout, blood clouding in the corner of the fishbowl, the tech finally going limp -
He takes out one, two more guards, feeling their bodies thump to the floor beneath his boots.
The last runs towards the boathouse door in an attempt to escape, unhooking a small can from his belt and letting it soar across the warehouse. Frank shoots him in the knees for good measure. He falls with a painful scream.
The blast that follows blows him off his feet and leaves him sprawled halfway on the platform stairs.
Flames are engulfing the ocean-facing wall again when his eyes open, eating away at the wood, the black curtains, and shattering the windows. This time, the reach is too high for a hallway fire extinguisher. It burns through new barrels, the shipping supplies, and creeps towards a row of tables. Air is getting thin already, and smoke coats his lungs.
They have to leave. The room is ablaze, and there are bodies everywhere, and he only wants to know if she’s okay.
He finds Fisk lying on his stomach a few feet away, a fresh bruise forming in his cheek. Blood flows from a head wound. “Ooh hoo, look at you,” Frank sings low, bending to a knee and rolling him over to get a better look. He can feel his lip curl up in a snarl as he hears the struggle, the hiss of his staggered breathing over the roar of the fire behind him. “You piece of shit.”
Could it be so easy, he wonders. They can always leave him here to die of smoke inhalation, or a nasty head wound. Let him choke on his own blood. Give him one last hole in his skull, he hopes, the heavy lead to bury deep into the wood floor beneath where he lay. Let the building and all the bad that came out of it just burn away. He wants that for her. He wants that.
Fisk’s hand reaches up grasp at Frank, tearing his collar with the force of it. He swings a fist into his jaw, grunting with satisfaction when it meets. Frank can feel the cold burn of a cut appear and the two of them start in on each other. His head drops into the mission. A grab for a neck, a knee to the chest, an elbow to the face, a headbutt, punches to the side. He roars -
He hears a thwap of wet hit the ground, a splash in the deafening crackle of burning wood.
Fisk gets a look at the scales on his chest after tugging him close to throw him back to the ground. He holds him there with immense curiosity on the now-sealed cut in Frank’s jawline, the inexplicable fact that he holds no bruises. “It works on people?”
They’re already hanging on by a sliver at his heart, he can feel it. Fisk is smart, though, and he’ll deduce the truth even if he doesn’t tell him outright. Karen’s words on how scales work when they are given and never taken would only be lost on him.
He moves for the eyes in the moment of hesitation, his thumbs pressing in with ease like pushing the start button in Curtis’ car. This was what he had come for - the blood, the fire, the end of it. He begins to roar in pain, reaching blindly for anything he can while Frank tries to knee him over onto his back. From above, a hand wraps around Fisk’s neck, digging nails into his skin - locking in deep and tearing out the meat of his throat.
Karen ends it with red under her fingernails and a shaky breath.
Fisk reaches for only a few seconds more when she shoves him aside. Blood begins to pool into the water leaking on the floor, and he stills.
Her eyes scan Frank’s face for the briefest of seconds and drop to his chest. He looks her over just the same - his arm touching hers, her cheek, the soft curve of her tail - to check for any signs of damage from the stunner rod, if she was hit with any gunfire. She’s nodding to herself as she turns away. He knows where her mind is going - the look, her shock, it’s not unfamiliar territory for him. “You okay?”
One of the support beams across the ceiling starts to crumble. They’re not safe, and the fire has been going on long enough for him to guess they won’t be alone for much longer. He’s got to get her out of this place. Everything else will burn.
Frank moves to his feet and wipes at his chin, looking out into the warehouse to find the best course of action to get them out. She’s hovering over Fisk, her palm on his shoulder.
“Hey, c’mon, what -” He watches Karen swipe at her hip just as her tail begins to dry out, the blue becoming pale pink, the sharp bend of her knees forming, toes stretching when her fluke melts away. A layer of her scales extends past her wrist, and she smacks his face with it, rubbing them in aggressively and letting them adhere to his cheek. They cover one of his eyes and a part of his lip. “What are you doing?”
“Fixing him,” she says, eerily calm. Her jaw is set, her gaze never leaving the man on the damp floor.
“What? No, Karen -” his arms wrap around her to lift her away. Blood continues to coat the bottom of his boots, and he can see the outline of vertebrae leading to his skull. There’s no way this guy could still be alive after doing what she’s done. She slips from his grasp, pressing her fingers even harder into Wilson’s face. “Let the bastard die, right? That’s what you wanted.”
“And he will, again,” she nods, turning to meet his eyes. Her lip quivers. “He will. After what he did to Kevin -”
“You got him,” he tells her breathlessly, hearing more glass shatter, the room getting hotter.
Frank holds his hand out and sees her hesitate to take it. For a moment she only breathes, her chest heavy, grimacing back on Fisk’s graying face. Karen wipes at his cheek then, the scales melting into the puddle his body lays in.
He’s one more broken window from lifting her up and carrying her out to shore when he feels the wet slip of her hand against his own.
“Will it be enough, Frank?”
She rises from the shallow water in the boathouse, meeting him at his crouch and pressing her nose to his cheek. Her touch is gentle, fingers slightly shaking upon where they rest on his collar. After everything that happened inside, her hair still smells of the ocean.
“It’s not safe for you to be here,” he whispers to her. Faint sirens can be heard in the distance - police, fire, the ambulances. He’s got his own plan to maneuver his way back to the lighthouse undetected, but she shouldn’t be anywhere near here when the authorities arrive. Who knows what they’d do to her if they found her. The unimaginable has already been done before - Frank cannot let that happen again.
Her hand is damp as she wipes at his face, drawing her thumb over his jaw, his cheekbone, and the center of his crooked nose when she leans back to see. He watches watery trails of Fisk’s blood chase a blue vein on her wrist before dripping onto the floor. Karen’s eyes soften, a small huff escaping her mouth when she plants both her hands on the edge of the dock. “Is it safe for you?”
He doesn’t have the answers she’ll be looking for. There’s no way to figure what will happen next - whatever he tells her isn’t going to be what she needs. He thinks she sees that when he catches her gaze, the hard set of her mouth when she stares back. She’s so goddamn stubborn. “Karen, you gotta go.”
The boathouse is getting smoky from the fire they just escaped beyond the door. It won’t be long before the window shatters, the wooden walls turn to ash. It won’t be long before someone else will arrive. Her jaw juts to the side before nodding, letting go of the edge and pushing back, away from him. Again, he thinks, as her tail kicks up, the mixed shimmer of green and blue hitting the light from the lowering sun outside the garage.
“Hang on,” he calls out a little defeatedly, going to his knees. His body leans over the wet dock towards her. “Just - god.”
Frank reaches, his hand cradling the back of her neck and bringing her in close. He rests his forehead against hers, wishing for better circumstances. Any other circumstance. Karen hums a soft, anxious tune as he kisses the corner of her lip, feeling her linger, feeling her press a little firmer. This isn’t goodbye, he wants to believe. He won’t say it.
“Good luck, Frank.”
Neither will she.
Curtis stares hard at him from the other side of the high table. He’s got a finger pointing at him, the other hand distractedly tapping a beer bottle against the laquered wood to the beat of whatever is spilling from the jukebox across the room.
“You… you’re so goddamn lucky that place burned to a crisp before they could get inside.” His voice is grating. Tired doesn’t cover his tone. “With the shit you pulled?”
Frank picks at the label on his own beer before chuckling low, shaking his head. “Ahh,” he mutters, “well.”
It’s a few days since the remains of Fisk’s body have been identified. He had gotten out of there with just enough time to grab his weapons bag from the opposite roof and slink into the evening, losing himself to the shadows in the alleyways before the detectives pulled up to the building. The muted TV above the bar plays a recycled helicopter feed of the aftermath, the dark and billowing black smoke escaping the roof illuminated by spotlights before abruptly turning to the weather for the rest of the week.
Curtis leans back in his seat and sighs. “Dinah got the in on what the cops found. Told me they still can’t get a read on stuff in there but they’re trying to chock it all up to some kind of bad rivalry.”
Frank looks around the dingy area they’re situated in for just a second - they should probably go if they’re gonna get into this now. Rivalry would be the easiest thing to conclude, though, with how much shit Fisk had been responsible for. He slides out of the chair to stand. “She even allowed to know that?”
“Not normally, no,” Curt picks at the fry plate between them before getting the clue and following. “But her report on that guy we pulled up last week matched with the marks they could actually see. Wanted her opinion.” The bartender appears, clearing the small pile of torn sticky labels in front of where Frank had been, grabbing for the empty still in his hand.
“Cut that out,” she calls over her shoulder when she walks away.
The air is warm when they step outside - damp from light rain. A fog rolls in on top of that, swirling under a streetlamp just ahead. “You know, they’re still trying to figure out how his throat ended up so many feet from where he landed,” Curt says, leading them off towards the parking lot. “No weapons, no discernible fingerprints, they said they’d never seen something like that before.”
She’s a goddamn force of nature. He knew it, when they first found her, fighting for her life - knew it when she choked on memories, telling him her story. How her eyes flashed with her anger, seeing her so willing to risk herself for another, and then when he felt her rest a hand to his chest in want. He knew it as she brought forth a man’s life to splatter across his face and she delicately wiped it all away in the fallout.
“You know why that is,” he grunts, keeping his eyes low to the ground before huffing, rubbing at his chin.
“Yeah, I know why. Shit, Frank.”
They fall into a comfortable silence when they get in the car. Frank focuses on the fog creeping closer, watching it spin beneath the light until he can’t see through it anymore and they turn into the street. Sounds of the city fill their ears when he rolls the window down. Laughter leaving the bar, tires splashing against rain puddles, the burst of a car horn a few green lights ahead. It all gives him a moment to wonder where she is right now. How she is. Will it be enough?
Curtis breaks first. “They arrested the wife for violating a fishing regulation, apparently.”
“Christ,” Frank mutters, leaning an elbow out the window and settling a hand across his lip. He doesn’t figure that’s going to be a long jail time. “What didn’t Madani tell you?”
He ignores the dig, rubbing a hand through the short hair on his head and giving him a quick glance. “They couldn’t even identify what they had in there before everything blew up.”
There had been nothing left inside. Nothing that could be traced back - that much Frank has a guarantee for. “Fisk, you know, he uh… he kept saying it was a gift. Maybe she knew where it all was coming from after all that?”
“Can’t be too sure,” Curtis says, looking out past the red light they’ve stopped at to the group of people meandering across the road. One girl squeals with laughter when a friend spins her. A guy drunkenly belts out lines of a pop song when they hit the crosswalk. Curt shakes his head. “She was adamant it was all just dyed snakeskin. Like she never actually went to the warehouse, just made the design blueprints.”
“What’s Madani think?”
His hand lifts from the steering wheel, uncertain. They take a turn off the main road towards the water when the light turns green, and Curtis meets his eyes with a thin line of worry, a gentle sigh escaping his mouth. “You think she’s gonna be okay?”
And then just like that, they aren’t talking about the case anymore.
Frank shifts in the passenger seat. He thinks he’s never been one for optimism. The shit in this city piled up so high it bled out into the water for christssakes - it rivals the stench of garbage on the nearby curb. Any other time, to any other question, he may have just scoffed in his face and said don’t do that. But this time, his answer is as easy as breathing. “I hope so.”
Frank spends the next few weeks tidying up the Kitchen.
Vanessa Fisk didn’t know what her husband had been up to in that warehouse, and the city mourns the loss of a successful business mogul. Not many more roaches make themselves known and crawl out from the shadows for very long.
The summer sun burns just enough each morning to keep him appreciative of it. He squints at the horizon in front of him, sipping at black coffee in his mug to pull out the feeling of fitful sleep. It’s early. Early enough that focus comes easy to him, listening to the seagulls and the boats at the pier down the road. There’s even a distant splash off to his left - he figures it’s a local kid, maybe throwing rocks off a cliff in a poor attempt to skip them, until he spots a small flukeprint.
He waits a second. Amy had mentioned seeing a humpback whale a couple of weeks ago, but he’s never been back here in time to spot it. Not common enough on the Hudson to spot something like that nowadays. There’s a shiver in his spine when his mind goes in another direction, but he doesn’t let it linger long. He can’t.
A minute. Two minutes. Three.
His phone rings inside the house.
He’s got a to-do list for tomorrow from Sarah in hand when he hears it coming from out back. They need a whole new garbage disposal, their dryer isn’t drying, and it’s cheaper for everyone if he just did it. It’ll keep him busy now that things out on the streets have cooled down a bit.
“Yeah?” The back porch doors are open, and he waves quick in greeting as he heads to find his toolbox in the next room, closing windows as he goes, catching Amy out on a pool float tied to the end of the dock. She left them all open when she went outside before the sun went down, and it’s been sweltering the whole day. It doesn’t help that he stays in dark jeans and boots, either, but that’s another thing entirely.
A stack of his books lie beside her on the wood, the flashlight from her phone turned on in her hand. He knows she can hear him, so the silence that follows only makes him scoff. He turns, close to leaving and going to the home improvement store without waiting for an answer, he just needs his keys. If he goes now, he won’t need to deal with much of the traffic in -
“ Hey, Frank, uh -”
“Goddamnit, kid,” he shouts back, coming to the back door. “What? I’m -”
Gonna head out again for a little.
Gonna take the truck.
The words don't come, though. A flash of deep blue way out in the river disappears below, only to resurface ten feet closer, tail rising slightly, the fluke splashing and lowering again. A shimmer of iridescent green sparkles off the current.
“Do you see that? What is that?” Amy’s got a knee up on the float, already paddling closer and reaching to stand, her moves frantic.
It’s his fault, he wants to say. He wants to say anything - after seeing the look she gives him. He never told her more than what he thought she needed to know. Frank takes a step past the glow of the porch light, slowly lifting a leg to undo the laces in one of his boots when the moon catches the white halo of her hair on the water. This can’t be real.
He doesn’t even bother with the second set of laces, toeing them both off with ease. Amy motions from the edge of the dock, following with her flashlight when the blonde dives for a second time. She creates a flukeprint in the water, and he nearly chuckles to himself. It comes out sputtering. His socks come off. He’s gotta be -
“Karen.” She hits the surface again, smiling from a distance, her chin high at him. She swims in a little more, and he’s already breaking into a run down the dock, pulling away at his shirt.
He’ll meet her out there this time, his decision made - jumping off and vanishing beneath the cool water. There’s a panicked and surprised shout from above, but he moves anyway, furthering himself out with a few swings of his arms to where she is. It’s dark. Almost too dark to see which way he’s headed until the reflection of the lighthouse beacon becomes clearer.
Karen reaches him from her place in the middle of the river, wrapping her tail tightly around his leg and bringing them back up to the air. Her arms feel warm against him when they reach it, one hand gliding over the muscles in his back, the other cradling his neck. Frank stares, nearly incredulous - wading with one arm and the other palming her cheek. He’s missed her. Her eyes close gently and she sways into his touch, her breath shaky as his thumb traces the curve of it. His voice is a whisper, heavy with disbelief when he drops his hand. “Hey. What are you doing over here, huh?”
She makes a small noise in her throat in return when she looks back. The moonlight hits her just enough for him to see her bite her bottom lip. Her heart is racing - Frank feels it pounding under his fingers until he feels her tail tug him even closer. Karen runs her nails across the nape of his neck and he watches her eyes lift mischievously to his, feeling the resulting shiver race down his spine. “Just really good to see you.”
A real chuckle leaves his throat this time. “It’s good to see you, too.”
Karen’s gaze falls soft as he says the words. It’s a goddamn relief to know she’s okay, to see she made it away safe. He had hoped - he had wanted...
Her smile is wide, baring teeth as he holds her. His fingers follow the dip of her waist until it blends with her scales. She kisses him then - brief but heady, pressing herself against him. He can hear Amy’s distant shouts for clarity from the dock, and Karen laughs into his mouth at the sound. Frank shakes his head without another thought, pulling her back in for another, his fingers winding into her wet hair. He tastes joy on her tongue.
The water is cold but her hands never leave his skin, warming him down to the bone. Even the platinum armlet he gave her before bears heat as it brushes against him. He’s glad she’s here, his thoughts haven’t been far from her for very long, but why is she? “What are you doing, huh, what’s got you out here?”
“It’s summer,” she tells him in a breath, and then he remembers what she told him on the ship. “We go further... we stay low until the boats leave.” Karen turns to peer at the moon for a moment, her eyes calm when she looks him over again. “We don’t surface for a while.” Her fingers touch his face before she settles on his jaw. Her tail loosens from his leg and she huffs to herself after a moment, suddenly hesitant to speak.
“What is it?”
“Can I stay low with you, Frank?”
Yes. She could ask him for anything, it didn’t matter. “You want to?” Karen nods. Jesus Christ. He can’t help himself from resting his lips upon her shoulder, pressing an open mouthed kiss to her skin, unbelieving. “Okay,” he whispers against her. “Yeah. You stay as long as you want, you hear me?”
“I’d like that.” Her voice is light, a weight lifted from the worry. Did she think he would have said no?
He wants to ease it further, maybe mention the area doesn’t get much activity beyond a few boats during the day, a couple of asshole swimmers sometimes, but only on the weekends. Something shifts in the inky black of the water between them and then she’s wrapping herself around him again, her arms around his neck, her legs -
The heel of her foot digs into his back and Frank locks an arm around her tight to keep her steady. He touches a newly formed hip in return, gliding his hand slow to hold the ball of her knee. He can hear the quiet hitch in her breath as he continues to wade in the water, and it’s so unlike the moment they had on the boat. “Do you want this skin?”
“I love this skin, Frank.” Karen smiles softly when the realization of her change dawns on him, and she muffles her laugh into her hand. “Look at you,” she says, full of wonder.
It’s almost difficult to breathe when she meets his eye - he can’t fathom what he’s done to have the universe decide he deserves something like this. It nearly leaves him shaking. He’s lost too much in his life before. After everything he’s done out there, the situations he’s put himself through since losing his family, he could never imagine he’d get lucky enough to feel this type of way again. And about a mermaid.
Frank pets at her cheek with a finger, marveling at the way her face burns with a blush. She practically glows beneath the moon. “Look at you.”
I've got fucking chills, you guys. This story is finished, oh my god.
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