Marvel's latest offering is the obvious choice. The Punisher is based on Daredevil's disappointing second season, and it's probably just going to be Jon Bernthal shooting people, but he's a charismatic actor and Kairos can't give it her full attention anyway. For the first half of the show, the plot confuses her, the character development intrigues her, one of her favorite Daredevil characters shows up, there's an intelligent look at violence and morality, and there's a hacker who isn't a teenager or a tubby nerd, so that's kind of cool.
Episode 10 rolls in and okay wow this is a fandom now. This is a fandom I have and this is a ship I have and I cannot think about anything except this fandom and this ship and I need more, show please give me more, internet please give me more, nothing else matters. I mean thank God for taaroko falling for it at the same time as me so we can spend the next couple weeks pelting each other with fanworks and squee, but I need more of you to watch it. Talk to me. Tell me what I need to say to convince you.
Summary: Karen's had too much loss. With a lover like Frank, it's hard not to think about losing him too.
Notes: Spoilers for The Defenders as well as The Punisher. (Although honestly? Not that many for either.)
The choice given to her wasn’t whether she was going to write the obituary for Daredevil or whether the Bulletin was going to continue under the assumption that he was still alive. The choice, made clear by Ellison though softened by his sympathy, was whether she would write the obituary, or someone else would.
Karen didn’t hesitate. She had it outlined within the hour, finished the next day. Her first proofreader told her it was one of her finest pieces of writing. Ellison agreed. She did too, and it went to print.
Her eyes were dry the entire time. She expected to get hit with the worst of her grief once she held the issue in her hands, and even made preparations for it, keeping that evening free and stocking her apartment with brandy and chocolate and tissues. The headline stared at her from the table, black text on white paper: Hell’s Kitchen Mourns Masked Hero. She read through the whole thing, found a typo, tried to figure out which colleague to blame for it, and waited. Ten minutes later, she took her phone out of silent mode and turned on the TV, tissues and chocolate untouched. She didn’t overdo it with the brandy, either.
It was probably because she still didn’t believe Matt was dead, she told herself. But whatever she believed, he wasn’t here, and she had to get used to that, and it was worth crying over. She didn’t know what else to do to convince herself to get to that stage.
So far there had been neither obituary nor funeral for Matt. He had been reported missing, after enough time had passed to buffer any connection to Daredevil’s death, but Karen and Foggy, along with Matt’s new super-powered friends, had collectively agreed to not be the ones who knew anything about his disappearance.
Karen lived with that untruth by shaping it into the memorium that Matt deserved. She had written it all out in her head, and it was ready to go as soon as someone made the executive decision that Matt was no longer of this world. Someone could make that decision, much as she hated it, but she was the one who was going to honor his life with her words, and honor his secret by not repeating a single phrase or telltale adjective from what she had written for Daredevil.
Maybe that was what it would take. Maybe she would cry for him when both of him were officially pronounced dead.
Her grief was still on hold when Frank resurfaced. And she had to hand it to the man, if nothing else, he was a distraction. When they parted, she had a new batch of secrets and a hole in her purse and a vase of white roses in her kitchen. Plenty to think about.
She fantasized about him sometimes, concocting imaginary scenarios that ended with him in her bed, but the sexy parts were always more afterthought than goal. What she really craved, with a wistfulness that would have embarrassed her more than lust if anyone had known about it, was to do something boring with Frank. She wanted to play checkers with him. Watch a reality show. Tell him stories about her past that had nothing to do with catharsis. She wanted to hold his attention for a couple ordinary, mind-numbingly dull hours. Just to see if she could. Just to see who he was without the war.
Frank was alive; he had done her the courtesy of contacting her to say as much, using the last method she would have expected. A box of text had appeared on her laptop one day, not related to any program or site she knew of, just a black window with white text: A mutual friend wants you to not worry about him. He says you know how to reach him if you’re in trouble again. Click this window when you’re done reading and it will disappear. I didn’t touch any of your files.
It was unnerving, but whoever the messenger was, Frank must have trusted him. Something was probably very wrong with her when a hacker had access to her personal computer and she was okay with it only because he had the tacit approval of the most infamous criminal in New York, but she could no longer make herself doubt Frank’s instincts even if she tried. Now she didn’t have to doubt his well-being, either.
Nevertheless, a day after she was told not to worry, she began composing his obituary. It was completely accidental, nothing more than her mind wandering after one of those pathetic domestic fantasies, but she couldn’t stop herself. She reviewed everything she knew about his life, considered what the Bulletin would accept and how the readers would react. She obsessed over the headline. “Castle Found Dead in Struggle With Crime Ring”? “City Remembers Complex History of Frank Castle”?
It had to use his name, of course, because God knew what the other papers would be calling him. Serial Killer Found Dead. City Remembers Domestic Terrorist. The Punisher, the Punisher, everywhere it would be the Punisher.
She remembered to call Foggy when she had a chance. He was audibly happy to hear from her, and then concerned about why she had called, and then relieved when she promised it was just because she wanted to hang out. “Me too,” he said. “Oh man Karen I want to hang out so bad, and we are gonna do that. Soon. But work’s killing me and if it’s not an emergency...”
She just barely checked her impulse to tell him it was an emergency, that if they didn’t act like normal people with a normal friendship she wasn’t going to have any of those left at all. Instead she playfully scolded him and told him to get back to work. After they hung up, she sat and looked at her roses for a long, long time.
Did she have to be in trouble again to justify putting them in the window? Frank would come if she needed him. She needed him. Maybe it would scare him a little if he thought she was trying to get his attention because she was in danger, but she could explain. She could tell him she just wanted his company. He would understand. She thought he would understand.
The roses stayed on her kitchen table, but Frank still knocked on her door the next day.
“Hey,” he said.
She stepped back to let him in, moving as if in a dream. “Hey.” A headline flashed into her mind: Girl, Not in Trouble, Visited by Frank Castle. With the closed door against her back, she took a moment to look him over. There was nothing tactical about his dark clothing, but she knew where he would have weapons concealed beneath them. No bruises on his face, or fresh cuts. That was refreshing. “You okay?” she asked anyway.
“Yeah. Yeah. You?”
She half-smiled. “You would’ve known if I wasn’t.” She allowed a little bit of question into her voice, but it wasn’t a Wouldn’t you? question, more of a So why are you asking?
He shifted his weight, pulled at his nose, looked in three different directions before bringing his eyes back to her face. “Just wanted some company.”
Her smile turned deep and grateful. “Beer? You’re in luck, I’ve got microbrews.”
“Well, uh. I was thinking. You wanna take a walk before it gets dark?”
She paused with her hand on the refrigerator. “We can do that?” He didn’t even have a hoodie or cap. His hair was short and his face was clean-shaven. Aside from the lack of visible injuries, he was completely recognizable.
He shrugged and nodded. “I’m Pete Castiglione.”
“Just some guy.”
It took a moment for that to sink in. She knew he wasn’t telling her that everything would be safe or easy from now on, but being just some guy was an enormous improvement over his previous status. She could take a walk with just some guy. “Okay. Hi Pete. I’ll just grab my jacket.”
He was right in front of her, alive and well, and her mind was still at work constructing an opening paragraph: The controversy surrounding Frank Castle over the past two years has obscured the public’s understanding of who he was and what drove him. Now, as we consider him in light of his death...his actual death...will they even believe he’s dead, after hearing it twice already? She tried to shake her head clear, and Frank gave her one of those penetrating looks without saying anything. How would he die? That would make a difference. She couldn’t write the opening without knowing.
She suggested Battery Park, because it wasn’t Central Park, and the walkway along the water was full of people strolling aimlessly, enjoying the spring weather, not being frightened. They bought hotdogs from the first vendor they passed, ate them while walking, bought sodas from the next one, and picked up their pace to reach the ice cream Karen liked before the stand was rolled away. They kept talking, mostly through Karen’s design and mostly about the food and the park, because any pause made her subconscious mind produce another sentence about who he was before he died. She kept all that successfully concealed, but when the next silence came they were sitting down on a park bench facing the Statue of Liberty, and it wasn’t boring. Time to give up the fantasy.
So she finished eating, wiped her hands on her paper napkin, tossed her plastic cup in the trash can behind the bench, and said it right out loud: “I missed you.”
There had been no accusation in her voice, but he looked ashamed. “I been trying to get my shit together…”
“Are you serious?” Her laugh was genuine. “Just imagine, me seeing you before you had your shit together. No way could we handle that.”
He laughed ruefully along, then exhaled a long breath and leaned back, shoving his hands in his pockets. “A’right. I’m here now. You got me at your disposal.” He turned to her, and his voice took on a tone at once pleading and grave. “What do you want to do with me, Karen?”
She tugged her jacket tighter around her; shadows in the park were getting longer. “This,” she said. “But more of it.” He was looking at her like she was reciting some kind of tragedy. She stared back and went on, “I’ve been taking it on faith that I don’t need to worry about you. Like your friend said. No news is good news, right? But God, Frank-- Pete-- I’m a journalist. No news is the worst news.”
His arm stretched out behind her, first resting on the bench, then going all in and draping over her shoulders instead. “I can come ‘round some more,” he offered.
“Don’t make me ask for it next time.”
He cast his eyes to the ground and then out to the water, everywhere but to her, but his hand tightened on her arm as if to compensate. He stated one word, quietly, neutrally. “Murdock.”
Matthew Michael Murdock, 1985-2017. “He’s dead,” she replied.
Suddenly it happened. Infinite sorrow clamped itself around her chest, cutting off her breath, levelling all the defenses she didn’t even know she had. She sobbed out loud, pressing a hand over her mouth after the first one, letting tears spill down to her fingers. “Oh God. He’s dead.”
In the space of a second, Frank was holding her to his chest, stroking her hair. “Shh. Sweetheart. I’m sorry.” She clung blindly to his sleeve, and he kissed her head. “I’m sorry, Karen. Come on, let’s get you home.”
She managed to nod, and he stood up without letting go of her, supporting most of her weight. He kept his arm around her as they walked back to the car, and she kept her head against his shoulder. It was already a relief to have cried a little, but she didn’t want to be alone with her newfound grief.
It was a long walk back to the car, despite getting a better spot than a driver should have been able to hope for in this part of the city. They didn’t talk about anything this time. Karen felt like she hadn’t slept in a week.
“I’ma drive,” said Frank, holding out his hand for the keys.
She raised a brow over one puffy eye, challenging him, but he just kept standing there with his hand open, so finally she sighed, dug the keys out of her purse, and relinquished them.
He kept his eyes on the road, but every few moments he would reach out and touch her wrist or her knee. She wondered if he would know how to get back to her apartment without her directions, but soon she remembered that he had known where she lived for a long time and could probably get there from anywhere in New York.
Back inside, the first thing she did was take the gun out of her purse and put it in the drawer of her bedside table, just to show Frank she was disciplined about it. He didn’t say anything, but she saw him nod in approval as he turned from locking and deadbolting her door. Then he took off his jacket, revealing a modest holster at his waist, which he also removed. She followed him with her eyes as he entered the bedroom, and standing across the bed from her, he set down his own gun on the other nightstand just as if that was where it belonged.
Her jaw nearly dropped at his audacity. Did he think he lived here? At the same time, it was nice to have a sign that he intended to stay for a little while, and she wasn’t about to tell him to put it anywhere else.
His grin at her changing expressions showed he had anticipated that conclusion. “I’d take that beer now,” he suggested.
“So go get them,” she countered, returning to the living room and dropping herself on the couch.
There was something immensely soothing about the sounds of him poking around her kitchen to find and use the bottle opener. He returned and put one of the beers into her hand before sitting down beside her and reprising his position from the park bench, and she leaned into him without a second thought, ready to face the next onslaught of tears whenever it was ready to come.
“I read your article on him,” said Frank. “Did him proud, y’know. Cut through the bullshit, told the real story.”
Karen blinked, confused. “Frank, there was no article.” Unless he had read it off her brainwaves, anyway. She put her beer down on the floor. “Matt hasn’t even been confirmed dead yet.”
He hesitated, rubbing steady circles on her arm. “I read what you wrote. ‘Hell’s Kitchen Mourns Masked Hero.’”
She sat upright and ran both hands through her hair. “Shit. You knew.”
“I ain’t about to let it out…”
“I know, I know.” She took a deep breath and released it in an incredulous laugh. “I just can’t believe...all this time and I...he had to spell it out for me. As soon as I knew the truth I felt like such an idiot for not seeing it.”
He brushed a lock of her hair behind her ear. His voice was compassionate: Castle Outwits Reporter, Doesn’t Rub It In. “The guy knew the ropes. Prob’ly tried harder to hide it from you than anyone else.”
She could buy that. Aside from Foggy, she had been the only one close to him who had any particular interest in Daredevil. It must have given him fits. Maybe she should have felt bad about that. She didn’t. “Do you ever still get angry at someone you’ve lost?” she asked. “Not even just angry at them for not being there anymore, but for something they did that hurt and you never really made peace about it?”
“Yeah,” he said in that low gravelly voice that came out of him when there was a stillness. “That happens.”
“I still don’t know if Matt cheated on me. Even after he came clean about all the other lies, I didn’t have the guts to ask.”
Frank’s hand, resting on her thigh, spasmed suddenly. His index finger drummed on her skin until he took it away and clenched it in his lap. “Didn’t peg Red for that kinda asshole.”
She leaned into him so he would have to put his arm back around her. “He wasn’t. I mean, you could put the indisputable evidence of it right in front of me and I’d still say he wasn’t. Just like I would have said there was no way my blind lawyer boyfriend boss was Daredevil.”
Frank stayed with her all night. There was never a decision made; he just stayed as long as she needed him, and it turned out that was all night. She talked for what seemed like hours, mostly about Matt and the other people in her life, alive and dead. Frank listened, and didn’t skirt around his own past when it came up, but they both knew he was intent on encouraging her to grieve in her own way. The city couldn’t handle anyone else grieving in Frank Castle’s way.
She stopped talking to cry on him a few times. Periodically one or both of them would get up for one reason or another, then come back to the couch as if their time in the bathroom or kitchen had been a commercial break. She wasn’t sure whose idea it was to move into the bedroom, but by the time it happened, she was in a sleep shirt and had removed all of her makeup, and he was sitting fully clothed on the bed next to her, fussing with her pillows to make sure she was comfortable. The talking continued, gradually getting slower and quieter, until she was on her side and his arm was draped over her and she was fairly sure she’d fall asleep like this.
It occurred to her that he had already known which side of the bed was his, since his gun was there, and that thought made her twist around to face him in the dark. His hand was on her cheek immediately, as if it had been expecting her, and her mouth found his with ease and pressed into it. There was need between them, but it was a need for the soft tongue and silence that was here now, not a hunger for something more. His fingers traced up and down her spine and combed through her hair, and she felt the reassurance of his solid chest against her palm, and then she sealed the moment with one long firm kiss and turned back around. He was still holding her, curved around her back with his face buried in her neck, when she lost her hold on consciousness.
He was gone in the morning. She dragged herself out of bed and went to the kitchen table, the place she thought it most likely she’d find a note. Sure enough, it was tucked under the pot of roses, making her heart flutter a little in anticipation, since she really had no idea what it would say.
It was a phone number. Text me, I don’t have yours, and a phone number, and it was signed “Pete”, no doubt meant as a gentle reminder. She laughed out loud. From now on she could call him. For such a simple thing it was almost absurdly delightful. No, it was delightful because it was such a simple thing. Calling up Frank and talking to him, no codes or subterfuge. She couldn’t wait.
He came over again that night, and the next two nights. The third time, he brought a guitar, and played for her while she sketched. He asked if he could leave it there when he went home, around midnight, and she decided it was time to address something: “I get to keep the guitar here, but not you?” She had condoms in the drawer with the gun, now, but Frank hadn’t so much as kissed her again. She wasn’t impatient, just curious.
He touched her cheek and gave her a level look. “We’ll talk,” he promised.
But the next night, the first one to show up at her door was Foggy, full of apologies for not calling first and for taking so long to make time for her. She forgave him instantly. “Get in here,” she ordered, giving him a swift, tight hug. “Give me a minute and we can walk to Josie’s. Will Marci meet us there?” She grabbed her phone to text Frank. He wouldn’t mind if she was going out with friends for one night instead of seeing him, but if she didn’t tell him her plans right away he was liable to worry.
“She said she might swallow her pride later if we decided on Josie’s and she couldn’t talk us out of it.” He wandered around the apartment as he talked, looking at all the little changes she had made since the last time he had been there. “I think she thinks the only reason we go there is because we’re part of some secret cult and Josie communicates our orders through a code in the drinks she serves. And you can’t really blame me if I deliberately put that notion in her -- hey, cool, a guitar! Are you taking lessons?”
Karen sent off the text and put the phone in her purse with the ever-present gun. “Um, no. That’s...I’m sort of seeing someone.”
He turned to her with an authentically happy expression on his face. “No way! Get down with your bad self. Time to buckle down for a night of telling me everything there is to know about this guy.”
The corner of her mouth quirked. He would find out eventually, but she thought the best way to play it would be to start with a vague description of Pete Castiglione and explain later that Foggy had already met him under a different name. “Well, you already know he plays guitar. What else even matters?”
Foggy laughed and kept meandering. “Is this him?” he asked, leaning over the coffee table.
Karen froze. She had left her sketchbook out, and yes, that was him. Both drawings included the guitar, so she couldn’t very well pretend that they weren’t done from life. So much for easing Foggy into this. “Okay, um, Foggy...”
“Man, these are really good. Can I see some of your other art sometime? I knew you could draw but you don’t seem to do it that often.” He paused, still holding the sketchbook, and Karen was releasing her held breath when he spoke again: “You know, weirdest thing, your guy looks just like...” He trailed off and met her eyes across the room, and his voice dropped to a hush. “Oh, Karen.”
She crossed her arms and said nothing.
“What’s really been going on these past few months? All those times you said we had to get together, what were you really trying to tell me?” He looked like he was in physical pain. “If I had known something was wrong I would have been there. You have to know that.”
“Of course I do,” she huffed. “What makes you think something was wrong?”
He waved at the sketchbook he had returned to the coffee table, then at the guitar with flailing gestures. “You’re in contact with the Punisher! You’re dating the Punisher! Something is absolutely wrong!”
“Foggy, it’s okay. He’s got a new legal identity, nobody’s after him anymore.” She picked up her purse. “Come on, we can talk about it at Josie’s.”
He shook his head. “There aren’t a lot of topics I don’t feel safe discussing at Josie’s. This is one of them.”
“Fine, then forget you saw that picture and we’ll talk about literally anything else.”
He hadn’t budged from where he stood in the living room. “We’re not going out tonight, Karen. What am I going to tell Marci? ‘Yeah, we’ll have a few drinks and later the Punisher might show up and we can duck and cover our way home.’”
Karen let the purse fall back to the counter. She had expected concern from him, but this hurt. “Would you stop calling him that?”
“Hey, you were there when he embraced it.” Foggy sighed and rubbed his eyes. “How long have you known he was alive?” She didn’t answer, instead giving him a steady stare, and he took her point and said, “I won’t rat him out to anyone. I’m just trying to get some idea of what happened. I mean, was it before or after he got in the news again?”
Headlines ran through Karen’s mind again, but this time they were real ones, and certainly not written by her. She had even wondered, at the time, what Foggy would think of them. “Before. That’s how I knew the news was bullshit.”
He frowned. “Does this have some connection to that radio interview you did?”
Karen couldn’t stifle a flinch, which she couldn’t tell if Foggy noticed. She exhaled. “The bomber’s dead, you know. He wanted to take me and that weakling Senator Ori down with him. Ambushed us at the hotel.”
“God. You were there at the hotel when it was bombed?”
She nodded, wrapping her arms around herself. “I knew I was poking a bear but I didn’t see that attack coming. Frank did.”
“Guess you’re gonna tell me that’s how you made it out alive?” There was no sarcasm or judgment in his tone. She still didn’t think he understood, but he cared, and for now that meant more to her.
“It is. And I’m not the only one. Please trust me on this, Foggy. None of us are in any danger from Frank. All he’s doing now is trying to live a good, peaceful, ordinary life.”
After he had kept the space of the room between them since Frank had come up, it seemed unduly significant when he finally came toward her and faced her across the counter. “It’s not that I don’t trust you. I don’t think there’s anyone in this world I would trust more than you. But as for Frank Castle living a peaceful life...Karen, you know that’s not going to happen. You know it. I won’t try to get in the way of whatever he does to himself, but I’m afraid of what it’s going to do to you.”
It was clear that the conversation was ending. Karen’s heart sank, knowing Foggy was about to leave and there was nothing she could do about it. She left a few seconds of silence before answering, softly, “Frank wouldn’t hurt me. Ever.”
Foggy was already halfway to the door. He turned and gave her a sad smile. “There’s a lot of ways to hurt someone without trying to. I thought we already learned that from Matt.”
She didn’t burst into tears or anything like that after he was gone, but since her plans for the evening were cancelled and her heart was in turmoil, she thought she had justification enough for drinking alone. She might as well get some work done, too. It wouldn’t be the first time she had managed both at once.
Ellison had assigned her a puff piece, and her protests had only made him reminisce about how often he’d had these arguments with Ben. It should have been a relief to occupy herself with something low-pressure for once, but she had found it was more work, not less, when she wasn’t invested in what she was doing. It paid the bills, she consoled herself, and gave it her full attention.
The piece was about a company called Damage Control, which specialized in cleanup and reconstruction after superhero battles. It was the kind of story that New Yorkers loved: all the glitz and drama of the Avengers, brought down to a personal level that made it “theirs”. Karen hadn’t seen Damage Control in action yet -- apparently, the trail of destruction caused by local crime lords and vigilantes was below their pay grade -- but it crossed her mind in the early research stages that they might have an opening for Frank. He had been finding construction jobs and working as needed, he said, but maybe he would be interested in something a little more regular.
She was fully absorbed and had just turned up something that truly interested her when she heard a rap at the door. Frank gave her a wounded look when she let him in. She frowned back at him. “Didn’t you get my text?” She hadn’t followed it up to tell him she would be at home after all. Come to think of it, she hadn’t looked at her phone since sending it.
“Yeah. I just went by your dive bar to check on you, and you weren’t there.”
She raked a hand through her hair. Telling him he shouldn’t be bothering with checking up on her all the time was a lost cause. This one was on her. “Sorry. Before we made it out the door we had a...disagreement. He decided not to come.”
Frank’s eyes narrowed. “The hell?”
“We’re still friends. I’m just giving it a little space.” She retrieved her empty glass from where she had left it by her computer and took it into the kitchen for a refill. “You want one?”
He shook his head. “So what were you fighting about?”
Karen paused, analyzing the question as well as his refusal of a drink. “What do you think?”
Before he answered, he came into the kitchen and leaned against the counter, his eyes on the white roses instead of on her. “If it’s me I just wanna know if he made any good points.”
“Yeah,” said Karen, surprising herself by how easily she admitted it. “A couple.”
“I said we’d talk.” He peered sideways at her. “You want to talk?”
Karen swirled the liquid around in her glass, finding she was less interested in drinking it than she had anticipated. “When it was time to write Daredevil’s obituary I didn’t have to think about it. I’d been putting it together since before I started at the Bulletin, I didn’t even realize I was doing it. Now I’ve got one for Matt, ready to go as soon as someone asks me for it. Give me a couple more days and I’ll have the finishing touches put on yours.” She put her drink down on the counter and glared at it.
Frank picked it up, held it to his nose, and tried a sip. “That’s what you and Nelson talked about?”
“He said you’d end up hurting me even though you were trying not to. And I think he’s right, just not in the way he thinks he is.” She took a deep breath, pointing her eyes at the ceiling. “Frank, I don’t want you to die.”
When she looked at him again he was wearing a lopsided smile. “Why would you think I’m gonna die?”
“Um, because I’ve met you? Honestly. That may be the singular dumbest thing I have ever heard you say.”
She hadn’t realized how upset she was until she heard her own voice. Frank set down the glass and put his arms around her, and she accepted the comfort, leaning her head against his shoulder. “You want me to stay alive,” he murmured into her ear, “best thing you can do is keep stirring up trouble so someone’s gotta be there to save your ass. I think you’re up to the job. Shit, Karen, you’re gonna keep me in this world forever.”
A sob bubbling in her throat came out as a laugh instead, and she broke away to touch her forehead to his. “Okay.” In spite of the hyperbole, his reasoning was solid enough to lift a weight from her chest. Of course he wouldn’t get himself killed while she was still busy putting herself at risk. “So, with those terms of engagement established…”
He moved his hands to her biceps, squeezed lightly, sighed into her hair. “You want to know why I don’t stay the night.” She nodded, and he moved a step back, releasing her. “You always said I had a code, right?”
She nodded again, wondering where this would lead. Frank was starting to fidget with his hands. “The code ain’t just about war. Where I come from you don’t hook up with someone you respect, y’know, unless you can see it through. You don’t play games with her, you don’t do that to a good woman. I’ve done the no strings thing, yeah, but that ain’t us. Anything we got, it’s gonna lead somewhere.”
Karen reached for the glass again. She hadn’t had a ‘where we stand’ talk quite like this one before, and it was a hard thing to grasp. “What, like, put a ring on it? I’m charmed, but...”
“I’m not joking, Karen.” His voice was hard and abrupt, meaning each word. “I’ve done this. I fell in love, I got married, I had kids. And I can tell you something you don’t know yet: it’s the right way. You see their faces for the first time, God, they’re so beautiful. You don’t know. You don’t know. It’s everything, it’s what we’re meant for. I can’t get back on at the beginning and not see what oughta be there at the end.”
For one dizzying moment, Karen saw his obituary again in her mind’s eye, but this time it was one which would never be written. It was the one that existed only in some alternate world where everything had turned out right for Frank. It focused on his military service, his decorations, his unique accomplishments in special ops. The picture at the top was him in dress uniform, classy and proud. What picture would the papers use now? A mugshot?
He is survived by his wife Maria, his son Frank Jr., and his daughter Lisa.
Karen put her face in her hands, nodded with her eyes shut tight. “No one can ever replace them. Replace her.”
“Hey.” He brushed his knuckles against her cheek. “It’s not about keeping her as the last woman I ever touch. Maria woulda bit my head off if I said I could never be happy with anyone after her, she didn’t have time for shit like that.” His voice hitched. “But I can’t...do it...again. I can barely live with the thought of you getting a paper cut. How would I be a good husband, a good dad, when all I got is this fear. That future just ain’t there anymore.”
She wrapped her hand around the back of his neck. “I know. I’m not asking you for that future.”
Frank kissed her forehead before turning away and pacing the small space that made up the kitchen area. He seemed agitated, shaking his head and picking up objects only to put them down again, but when he turned back to her he was smiling wryly. “Y’know you’d be a hell of a mom,” he said. “I can picture you, keeping the little punks in line. Teaching them about justice, the important stuff. Maybe…” He breathed out a single laugh. “Maybe getting them a dog? I don’t know, I’m not trying to sell you some picket fence shit, but you’d be good at it. That’s something I’d like to see.”
Karen was at a loss for words. She had spent most of her life waffling on whether she wanted children or not, but that wasn’t the question right now. She was fairly sure that she had just received Frank Castle’s highest form of praise.
“Look, I...” Frank sighed. “I’ma leave you alone for a couple days.”
Her face must have fallen, judging from the look on his, and her voice sounded fragile. “Frank?”
“Not like...not like that. You can reach me if you want. Just...see if either of us comes up with some kind of answer to this. And do some Karen Page living. Tell Nelson it’s safe to come out.”
“Don’t make fun of Foggy,” she warned.
“Yes ma’am.” He kissed her cheek before he turned to leave the apartment. “Take care. Everything’s gonna be fine.”
Karen made peace with Foggy as soon as possible. She had to admit it helped to tell him, truthfully, that she and Frank were taking some time away from each other. He agreed to meet her at Josie’s, just the two of them, and if Frank happened to check up on her while they were there, she never knew it.
“I don’t want to be your guy friend who tells you who to date,” said Foggy with that honest innocence of his that would have probably killed in the courtroom if he hadn’t been too honest and innocent to use it deliberately. “Even if you go and pick a boyfriend who scares the patooties out of me. I know he never scared you.”
“Oh yes he did,” Karen objected, remembering. “That’s before I got to know him, but still. He’s a scary guy. I know it, he knows it, everyone knows it.” She took a swig from her beer. As usual, they were drinking straight from the bottles, but at least the refrigeration seemed to be working properly tonight.
“Is that why you’re on a break?”
Karen almost corrected him, disliking the term ‘on a break’ for whatever was going on with her and Frank, but she didn’t have anything to replace it with. If she had accepted the word ‘boyfriend’ after one half-asleep kiss and some hand-holding, she couldn’t get fussy about descriptors now. “No, it’s not that.” She leaned her elbows on the table and propped her head up in her hand. “When things were crazy I kept trying to get Frank to see a future beyond the next battle. Now I’m realizing I’m the one who doesn’t have a long-term plan. I don’t know what I want.”
Foggy munched on something breaded and fried which, he said, was different every time he ordered it. “The work you’re doing at the Bulletin is amazing.”
“I know.” She realized how that sounded as soon as she said it, and laughed at herself. “I mean, it’s amazing to be there. I think this is exactly what I never knew I wanted to do all my life.” She stole one of the fried things from his plate and held it delicately in her fingertips while it cooled. “Ben was in that job for twenty-five years. He was amazing. And he had a good marriage on top of it, but do you know what his wife told me? They never got around to having kids. I think she wanted them, maybe they both did. But I get it. Now I’m there, I think there might be a lot of things I never get around to.”
“Well.” Foggy smiled, his eyebrows in a sympathetic tilt. “That’s true for all of us. Some more than others.”
Karen lifted her bottle. “Drink to that.”
Foggy clinked it. “Okay, this is the fourth time we’ve toasted something and we’ve only been here an hour.”
“Making up for lost time. Hey, those things we never get around to? This can’t be one of them, Foggy. From now on Josie’s is a priority. You and me.”
She kept up a balance with her other priorities, too. She went to the gym four times a week, to the shooting range once a week. She made an effort to eat something other than takeout. Most of all, she concentrated on her work. Her research for the Damage Control article came together, accumulating surprises until she had to seriously think about whether to ask Ellison if he had really meant this to be a puff piece.
Frank had said a couple days; it ended up being two weeks of sparse communication and the occasional brief visit outside each other’s workplaces before she called him up and asked to meet him at the diner. He got there first and was sitting at a booth facing the door when she came in. She had felt a little uncertain, since they hadn’t yet discussed what had separated them in the first place, but he was beaming at her over his coffee cup in a very un-Punisher way, and anything else she was feeling was quickly overwhelmed by being just as glad to see him.
She slid into the booth across from him, and he held up his cup and then pointed at her to signal the waitress, who soon returned to the table with the coffeepot. Karen thanked her, noting that they were among the only customers, so when she left they had plenty of privacy. “So,” said Karen. “You keeping your shit together?”
He smirked. She wondered if he knew he was being flirty, or if it was just something that happened. “More or less,” he answered.
Karen nodded and took out a folder from her bag, laying it on the table. “I thought you might like to hear about the story I’m on.”
“Always,” he said, though he sounded faintly surprised. He opened the folder and looked over the top page as Karen explained.
“When I started on it everything seemed pretty cut and dry. I was supposed to find some cute anecdotes about situations that Damage Control finds itself in when they clean up after a superhero battle. But this company is, it’s, selective. Their headquarters are in Manhattan, but they weren’t on site for the Midland Circle demolition. Two years ago they flew across the country to deal with the explosion at Pym Technologies. There’s no record of why that was important, except that this guy--” she tapped a name on the paper-- “worked in the Pym building, and he was hired by Damage Control the moment they arrived despite not having any applicable skills.”
Frank flipped through the file and examined it at length before saying anything. “You think they’re dirty?”
“I think a company that specializes in superhero fallout might be one that noticed it could benefit from having exclusive rights to explore this kind of wreckage.”
He didn’t look happy anymore. “They got secrets like that, they’re not gonna like getting questions about it.”
Karen took a sip of her coffee. “I don’t think they will, no.”
“So what are you going to do?”
“I’m going to ask them questions about it.”
He exhaled roughly. “Jesus, Karen, I thought you asked me here to talk. Is this how it’s gonna be? I only get to hear from you when you’re calling me in to watch your back while you give some lowlives reasons to want you dead?”
“No,” she said firmly. “I’m not asking for your help.”
That didn’t strike him well at all. “Bullshit. You know damn well if you’re gonna be stupid enough to walk into this I’ma be there too.”
Karen stared him down. “Yes. Yes I do. And I thought you might like to know about it in advance, so if it goes bad you don’t have to waste time figuring out where I am and what’s going on. But I’m not asking you to help. I’m just giving you the facts, and I can’t stop you from doing whatever you’re going to do with them.” She lowered her voice to a hiss. “And you know damn well that I’d be stupid enough to walk into this even if I had never met you, and that you can’t stop me from doing it anyway.”
She could see his teeth were clenched, and he swayed a little in his seat, his fingers twitching on the table. “So that’s your plan? Put your goddamn life in danger for a goddamn story?”
“If what’s going on is bad enough to put my life in danger, other lives are in danger too, and that means the story is worth it.”
“Fucking reckless,” he muttered.
“Yeah, that’s me. You still think I’d be a good mother?”
His head snapped up. Rarely had anyone seen him as shaken as he seemed to be just then, she was sure. He twisted his hands, began to speak twice but didn’t succeed in making a sound, and truly looked like he was about to cry. He was cornered: no way to protect the people he cared about, even the ones that only belonged to a hypothetical future.
Karen took pity and filled up the silence for him. “Pete--” She looked around; no one was close enough to hear. “Frank, I did come here to talk. This thing with Damage Control is real, I am going after them, but I need us to understand each other. I know you want me to have the good things that were taken away from you, and when you say that it’s the right way, I…” she felt a little choked up. “I kind of believe you. I kind of want it too. But I have a job to do. I don’t know when it’s going to end. I don’t know what it’s going to make of me. I just know that this is what I’m supposed to be doing, here and now, and I’m not giving it up just so I can try my luck at a different kind of fulfillment.”
His head was bowed, and he was looking up at her with sad, soulful eyes, like a dog waiting for a sign of kindness. She reached across the table to place her hand on his, but only left it there for a moment. “My first interview is on Tuesday at 9:00,” she said, and gave him the address, which he acknowledged with a slight nod. Then she gathered up the file on Damage Control, returned it to her bag, and took out a miniature envelope, which she placed on the table and slid toward him.
He picked it up, eyebrow raised, and removed the contents, one key to her apartment.
“I, um.” She swallowed. “You don’t have to use it, but keep it. Please. I want you to have it.” Moving quickly, she slid out of the booth and stood up. “Thank you for listening.”
“Karen,” he said just before she turned to go. “I get it. But yeah, I still think so.”
The first thing she did when she got home was to move the roses to the window. Maybe it was a meaningless gesture at this point, especially after giving him her key, but she had been going over their conversation in her head and she wasn’t sure they understood each other after all. Was there anything that could really convince him to be with her? Did he even want to?
Did she want to?
She had never condoned Frank’s methods, and she had made that clear to him, but instead of using it to draw a line she had accepted that her feelings for him could not be reconciled, and that she had to live with it. Everything that they had been through together so far had strengthened those feelings without severing her from her convictions, and sometimes it seemed to her that Frank was just as intent on protecting her from choosing him as he was from physical threats.
But Foggy had presented the truth of the matter: “You’re dating the Punisher.” And even though she wasn’t sure if they were dating, even though she didn’t like him being called the Punisher, she hadn’t denied it. She couldn’t deny it. All she could do was reword it in her head: “You’re in love with Frank Castle.”
In spite of the roses and the key, she didn’t see Frank again until Tuesday. Her interview with Damage Control was in a huge but nondescript building in Manhattan, and she could see as soon as she entered that Frank had plenty of options for staying close but out of sight. The office suite where she was led was on a low floor, small, clearly not the main headquarters of the company. It gave her no sense of danger, but she could tell almost immediately that it would be a dead end for her investigation. The friendly older woman that met with her was a manager at the lowest level of the corporate chain, and she seemed to understand very little about what went on above her.
She did, however, have a lot to say about superheroes: how glorious they were, how enigmatic, how compassionate. Karen tried to bring up the local heroes so dear to her heart, but it was clear that her interviewee was only interested in the players who had saved the world -- the whole world, all at once. In her eyes, cleaning up after them was an honor and a privilege. Karen asked about what kinds of surprises Damage Control had found on battle sites, and the woman could only wax on about the amazing technology that Stark Industries had developed. “You’ve never seen anything like it,” she insisted, although on further questioning, it turned out she hadn’t actually seen it in person, either.
Karen left with a complex mix of emotions in her belly. It was true, she had never seen the type of technology used by the Avengers. She had never been rescued by an Iron Man or Falcon. Even when she had needed it.
Just outside the building, Frank fell into step with her on the sidewalk. “How’d it go?” he asked nonchalantly.
“Well, I got my cute anecdotes.” She let her hand slip into his, and he kept a firm grip on it.
“Yeah, didn’t sound like there was much going on there.”
“You heard it?” She had half expected that, but she couldn’t figure out how he had managed. “Was that room tapped?”
Frank made an ambiguously affirmative sound. “I know a guy.”
They walked on in silence for a block, and then Karen asked, “Did your division ever use any of the Stark Industries war weapons?”
He gave her a startled look, but it passed quickly. “Yeah, for a time. Got real complicated when Stark pulled out -- they had to backtrack with anything he’d ever had his hands on. There’s still some tech advances nobody can use because they got patents somewhere down the line. Can’t say for sure that’s a bad thing, but you don’t pull the plug like that without taking a few losses.”
“Mm.” She wasn’t sure where she stood on all this yet, but it helped to think out loud. “Nobody seems that concerned that all this wonderful equipment designed for the Avengers never benefits anyone but the Avengers.”
“That’s not all true,” he said. “Stark’s the reason gunshots are so much quieter than they were. Pretty much why I ain’t deaf yet. Body armor’s better, too. Shit like that.”
They had reached Karen’s subway stop. She paused at the top of the stairs, thinking this was where they would part ways, but they were still holding hands and not done talking. “I didn’t know that,” she admitted. “Wonder what he’d think if he knew he helped you out.”
Frank tilted his head, peering at her, then began descending into the tunnel so she had to drop his hand or come along. “This is really bugging you,” he said as they left the brightness of day for the station’s fluorescent lights.
“I’m just tired of people from places like Hell’s Kitchen being invisible. Even Daredevil will be forgotten too soon. I write an article and it lasts a day before it’s archived.”
They didn’t part ways before the turnstile, either; he took out his own card and went through beside her, the bars shifting almost simultaneously. “What you do makes a difference, Karen.”
“Are you following me home?” she teased as they took the stairs, deeper down into the station.
“Yeah.” They had reached the platform for the Hell’s Kitchen train. He turned to face her. “I think you’ve been alone too much.”
She felt unexpectedly stung by the remark. Instead of dropping his hands, which he had taken in each of his, she gripped hard and let him feel her nails. “I have.”
He held her gaze, not looking repentant at all. “I’m there when you need me. I’m following you home right now and I’ma stay as long as you want me to stay.”
The train came roaring up, and Karen watched a few passengers come out. It wasn’t crowded, thankfully. She and Frank boarded, took seats at the far end, and kept holding hands even though she thought she might be angry at him. “Why is this so easy?” she murmured.
“Just being together. Riding the subway. Unloading all my problems on you. It’s always easy until we start talking about us and what we’re doing, and then...why is it so hard?”
He slumped back, leaning his head against the window and looking at her with such worshipful admiration that she almost couldn’t bear it. “I like seeing you this way. Badass reporter taking on the world and winning. Nobody trying to come after you.” He shifted in his seat again, and his voice lowered. “I don’t want to see that change.”
“I understand being scared to change.” She took inventory and came to three conclusions: she liked his answer, she was still angry at him, and they were still holding hands. “This is safe. I know I’m not doing anything wrong here. I think we could probably go on forever like this. Texting and taking walks in the park.”
He nodded solemnly. “If we’d started there…”
She didn’t need to hear him finish the sentence. If they had started there, sure, they could have grown together and lasted a lifetime. They also would have been entirely different people. “Where we started? That’s safe, too. In an insane kind of way. When I know we might be about to die, at least I don’t have to worry about who I’ll become. What to do about...you. Everything always makes sense for as long as it takes to survive.”
“Yeah.” He breathed out a humorless laugh. “Yeah, that’s about right.”
“So is that all we get? No middle ground? Are our best moments always going to be bleeding on the floor together?”
“I don’t know.” He curled his hand around her wrist. His voice was rough: “I don’t know what you want from me. You tell me you’re afraid I’m gonna die, you tell me you’re gonna keep making fires no matter what I think about it, and now you’re on my case because I’m playing it too safe? Christ, Karen. Maybe it’s about damn time one of us tried to play it safe.”
The train stopped and the doors slid open, admitting a young man who seated himself across the aisle from Frank and Karen. Nobody said a word, but after a few moments, he got up again and moved toward the other end of the car. Karen glanced at Frank, wondering if she was so desensitized that she could no longer tell when he was being particularly scary, then considered that the scary look might have been coming from her.
Frank weighed in by asking, “What’d that guy ever do to you?” and they both indulged in a much-needed laugh.
Karen sobered up when she realized that she had an answer to that. “I guess I was disappointed that he wasn’t a mugger. If you had needed to break his arm or something, we could stop having this conversation.”
“We don’t have to talk. I’ll still follow you home.”
“And leave me at the door? Or what happens on the other side?” There was a long, uncertain silence. Karen felt desperately grateful that he had never completely let go of her since they had boarded the train. Finally she spoke in a whisper, so she could use his real name. “Frank...if you really mean you’ll always be there when I need you…”
He touched her cheek with light fingertips. “What?”
“I always...always…” She swallowed and closed her eyes. She couldn’t say it.
There wasn’t another word between them for the rest of the ride. After they had gotten off at her stop, she cast the occasional look at his face as they walked, searching for answers, and he looked back at her, revealing only the usual information: that there were no secrets between them, that he was where he wanted to be, and that he would annihilate anyone who tried to approach her with ill intent.
At her door, Karen registered that he wasn’t leaving. For some reason, that made her heart jump, but she unlocked and entered, and didn’t try to make eye contact until he had followed her in and the door had clicked shut. They turned and faced each other before taking even another step into the apartment. Karen slipped her purse from her shoulder and let it drop to her feet.
She didn’t know who moved first. His hands were in her hair and at the small of her back; hers were on his neck and his face; their mouths were crushing together; he was holding her as if he intended to absorb her into himself.
Later they would laugh about how they had ended up on the floor. One of them, probably, would remark, “At least we weren’t bleeding.” But just then, Karen only knew that she was exactly where she was meant to be, and that Frank had put himself once again where he belonged, too: between Karen and the world. For long minutes he kept her face cupped in his hands, allowing himself to see nothing but her eyes, allowing her to see the deeply held pain in his, transforming.
Frank Castle Lives, she thought. The public never needed to see it, but it was still a good headline. Written by Karen Page.