He started building a new routine as Pete. It felt…weird, to live like it would continue, to live with purpose. The first time he’d been Pete, he’d just been killing time until he died. Now, well, he’d like to stop having nightmares some time in the next year. Maybe fill in some of that abyss of loneliness Karen had pointed out.
So he went to group, and he talked, and he went to Curtis’ for dinner a few times a week and they cooked together. He watched Curtis’ face heal and Curtis tried to talk him into therapy, not just group. He got a place and tried to decorate a little. Pieces of art he picked up from street vendors. He saw the Liebermans sometimes. He tried to pretend he couldn’t feel the urge to violence itching under his skin, pretended that it was the ache of muscles and bones healing. He went to the diner and got burnt coffee and watched sightlines and tried to be just any other man in the city.
“You’ve been avoiding me.”
He glanced up, then ducked his head back down. Karen looked good, by which he meant angry, but also amused. Nowhere near tears. No cuts on her face, no man with a bomb wrapped around her. He never knew, with Karen, what trouble she would get up to while he wasn’t looking.
“Mm. Yeah,” he admitted.
She sighed and sat down, flipped her own cup over. “The coffee here any good?”
She breathed a laugh and waved down the waitress. The waitress raised her eyebrows at Frank, but didn’t say a thing, just filled her mug and left. He guessed that was what tipping more than a hundred percent got him. Karen curled her fingers around the mug and sighed at the warmth. The snow was gray and slushy outside. Warmth was hard to find and important to treasure.
“You look good, Frank,” she said. “Nothing sticking out of you, no blood.” Teasing. Sincere. Both, probably. She tried for teasing and always missed.
He grunted, took a sip of his coffee. Curtis would tell him to be honest, with himself if not with her, so he thought and watched her. She waited patiently. She had more room for patience when she wasn’t worried he was about to kill someone, he guessed. When he wasn’t asking her to help make it happen.
“Been trying to get into a routine,” he said eventually, when all that remained of his coffee was cold and thin in the bottom of the cup. “Wasn’t sure if…” He trailed off. He wasn’t sure if she’d want to see him. He wasn’t sure if he could stand being around her and not…well. He wasn’t sure, that was all.
Karen raised an eyebrow. “I’d rather not have to get kidnapped every time I want to see you, Frank.”
He laughed. “Yeah, uh, me too.”
“So?” she pressed. “Is there space for me in the routine?”
Routines were dangerous. He had a whole speech about it, and David did, too. But he wasn’t supposed to be at war anymore. “Yeah,” he said. “Suppose there is.”
She smiled and put her hand on top of his, just a brief press of skin to skin, then retreated. He stared at his knuckles, still yellow with fading bruises, and felt a phantom of her touch. Oh. Oh. “Good to hear,” she said, while he stared at his hands and thought about the softness of her skin like a moron.
Get a grip, Castle. “Got a pretty full schedule, you know,” he said, pulling his gaze from his hands and glancing up at her face. “Might be hard to fit you in.”
“Oh, I see,” she said. “Your time alone with bad coffee is sacrosanct. My apologies. I’ll have to tell Curtis he mislead me as to your availability.”
“Curtis sent you?”
“Mm-hm. And he says you owe him a beer for the favor.”
“That’s so.” She smiled as she said it, and his fingers twitched against his mug. Not like squeezing a trigger, but like reaching for his kids, or the way he and his squad used to hold onto each other. Tight. Firm. Reminding each other that they were alive, and in the same room, and that world was more than violence. When had he last touched someone without blood slicking the way? He couldn’t remember.
Karen had hugged him, and he thought…he thought he had touched Leo and Zach. A hand on a shoulder, a hug, but all he could remember was holding the knife to Zach’s throat. Was that who he was, now? A man who threatened children instead of holding them?
He made a sound low in his throat. “Owe him more than that already.”
“Maybe someday he’ll collect.” She smiled again, brushed her hair back from her face. “I gotta go, Frank, but…call me some time. We can get coffee. Or I can get kidnapped again.”
“Coffee,” he said. “Tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow,” she agreed, with a pleased slant to her smile.