A/N: Follows the unbelievable (and yet somehow canonical?) presumption that Frank went completely dark on Karen between the events of TP1 and DD3, while also trying my best to explain away his absence throughout the season. Just a bunch of angst and feels, really.
Title from “What If This Is All the Love You Ever Get?” by Snow Patrol.
I’m in the Ruins Too, I Know the Wreckage So Well
She misses them both, in completely different ways. One is a mourning, silent tears forcing their way out until her eyes swell shut against neon lights and screens that rarely go dark. Half-sleeping on the couch in a dead man’s apartment. Watching the footage of Midland Circle collapsing in on itself on a mental loop, and thinking, for the first time in many years, about praying.
The other is a longing, something all-consuming that leeches, thick and heavy, from the marrow of her bones. It’s a rope lassoed around her ribcage, tightening on her heart and lungs at the smallest recollection. It’s an ache in her stomach, and lower, a sense memory of what a hand feels like on her cheek, what dark eyes look like in the fluorescent light of a freight elevator.
Frank comes back to her first. She doesn’t expect it to happen that way; she thought Matt was the one who left things behind. But a few weeks after the shootout at the Central Park carousel, a nervous-looking man shows up at her door.
“He said you were family,” he tells her, offering no other explanation. “I thought this might help a little.”
He holds out a black zip-up hoodie, pock-marked with white paint, and she takes it in trembling hands. Karen doesn’t even have to lift it to her face to catch the familiar scent on it, and she’s more than grateful that man – Micro, she pieces together eventually, David Lieberman – makes a hasty exit without much more needing to be said between them.
Her first instinct, after closing and locking the door behind him, is to chuck the thing across the room. It lands on the couch and she barks out a humorless laugh wondering what exactly has happened to her mind. It’s a Friday night and she’s just come from collecting the mail over at Matt’s place, only to find more ghosts crowding her space at home. Seconds later, though, she’s sinking down on the couch, face buried in the smell of Frank on soft cotton.
He doesn’t stay incorporeal for long after that. Like a dog with a scent, the next night, there’s a tap at her living room window that nearly startles her out of her skin – and his sweatshirt.
It’s late, and she knows there’s only two people it’s likely to be — though one of them is still very officially dead — but she loses her breath at the sight of Frank crowded on her fire escape all the same.
“Hey.” His opener is cautious and his eyes scan her up and down as she steps back from the window after opening it. He doubles back to the sweatshirt, and stares for a long beat that makes her shiver.
“Hey, Frank,” she answers finally. “You okay?”
“Yeah.” There’s a cut on his lip and a bruise under his right eye that say otherwise, but she doesn’t want to press it right away.
“Where’ve you been?”
“Here and there.” It’s the feigned casualty she hates sometimes, as if they’re old friends catching up over coffee and not whatever they are in the middle of whatever this is. “Guy from Curtis’ group got me a job working construction, mostly out in the suburbs.”
“Construction?” she chuckles. “Really?”
“For the most part.” He gives her that sheepish little half-smile and she doesn’t know whether she wants to kiss him or throttle him. Maybe both.
“You expect me to believe that?”
No,” he admits, “but it’s true.”
Karen rolls her eyes, weary of this flirty, nervous energy already. She’s loathe to admit it, but Frank looks good, apart from the few fresh scrapes and bumps. His eyes are soft and earnest and his beard is back, and that sends an embarrassing thrill through her, itchy and hopeful. “You need something?”
“Nah.” He shrugs.
“Then why are you here?” She’s missed him so much, half of her mind is screaming to wrap her arms around him and steal back every moment they’re owed. But the other half knows something else is happening. There’s a reason he’s decided to come here tonight.
“I wanted to see you–” Frank ducks his head mid-sentence, and something clicks in Karen’s mind. “Just wanted to make sure you were doing okay.”
“And why now?” He looks back up at her question, completely inscrutable.
“You’ve been ‘here and there,’ working construction for weeks,” she mimics back. She’s aware that she sounds like a child, but she can’t seem to help it. “Why stop by now?”
It’s not the question she really wants to be asking. Those are more complicated. Is this real or not? What, exactly, do I mean to you? How do you keep moving the uncrossable line without me noticing?
“Lieberman was here.” And there it is. Again, he doesn’t lie to her. But she doesn’t get the chance to appreciate that.
“The sweatshirt, there’s uh, a SIM card sewn into one of the pockets.” He’s watching his own feet shuffle like it’s the most fascinating thing in the world, and it makes him look impossibly young for all the years have carved him up. “Jackass has been threatening me with it for weeks, said it would be easier. I told him it wasn’t safe.”
“I don’t–” She reaches into the pockets of the hoodie and there, in the bottom stitch on the left side, she feels a plastic scratch and the tight loops of thread.
“You would have found it eventually,” he shrugs, “I told him that.” But Karen’s finally putting the pieces together, and all the worry that she’s been carrying around for him starts to ferment into a righteous fury.
“You’ve been watching me, Frank?” It burns through her, hot and bright and quick, and she relishes the easy adrenaline. “You’re tracking me around the city?”
“No, it’s not a tracker, it’s a data drive,” he explains, missing her point entirely. “And you could use it in a phone, to get in touch, if you needed. And yeah, I mean, I think David can get GPS off that if he wanted to, if it’s in a phone, but it’s not for us to follow you.”
“Not ‘us,’ Frank,” she presses. “Not the SIM Card. You. You keeping tabs on me? Watching from afar while I get to worry myself sick about whether or not you’re still alive?”
“Karen.” He reaches out towards her, but she flinches and he stops. His eyes widen in hurt surprise, but she’s not interested in his particular brand of self-sacrifice tonight. How the hell did they do this the last time? How the hell do they get close when there’s a metric ton of impossibility between them?
“You want me to go?”
That’s right. That’s what does it. It’s the sound of his voice when he goes all soft, the regretful way he’ll look at her when he walks out the door. It’s not just anger that’s been building up inside her these last lonely weeks, she thinks. It’s loss, and want, and the need to be as close to him as possible.
“No,” Karen sighs finally. “I don’t want you to go. I want you to stay.” She wonders if he hears the extra permanence she tries to put on the word.
“I always want you to stay, Frank. But you won’t, will you?”
She turns to walk back to her bedroom, and suddenly his arms are banded around her. It’s a mirror image of the way she had reached for him the last time they came back into each other’s lives, down to the intimate scratch of his beard against the shell of her ear. It feels like he’s pressed against every inch of her, and when she takes in a sharp gasp, she can almost taste him on her tongue.
“I can stay until the sun comes up,” he mumbles into her hair.
She exhales, and lets it sink into her bones. “Okay.” At least he’s honest. And she’s never had to ask him to be. “But I’m tired.”
“Okay,” he answers, taking her hand when she offers it.
She leads him to her room, and Frank sits on the floor next to the bed while Karen drifts off with a palm pressed to his shoulder. She sleeps through the night, and dreams of having coffee with him at the counter in her father’s diner.
Maybe he keeps his promise and stays until the rising light in the east splits bright gold through her blinds. Maybe he doesn’t. Maybe it doesn’t matter either way.
Wilson Fisk is released from prison and it feels like a string snaps inside of her, possibly the frayed final ends of her safety and sanity, whatever it is that’s been keeping her tethered to her own mortality all these years. She feels reckless, and she tries to burn it off, walking around the city for a while after leaving Ellison’s apartment – and a blind date that she had found almost entirely ridiculous, until she realized the shameful reason why was that part of her feels spoken for.
She’s definitely not looking for a date, and she truly can’t even imagine trying to be with someone who doesn’t understand the perilous insanity that her life has become in recent years. She’s never really done the casual thing, and besides, every time she even considers it now, she feels the burn of Frank’s lips against her cheek.
Still, what she doesn’t consider, not even for a second, is the burner phone buried deep in her purse – the one she dug out of a desk drawer the morning after Frank’s visit. She put the SIM card in it, but she has yet to try and turn it on. She can’t help thinking that she read too much Chekov in high school to possibly believe this ends well.
It’s Saturday night again – early Sunday, technically – when Karen finally gets home, though the coincidence won’t occur to her until later. She walks in the front door, and somehow knows immediately that he’s on the fire escape.
“You coming in, Frank?” she asks, already crossing to undo the latch and raise the frame.
He looks even worse for the wear this time, with dark smudges under his eyes, and as he climbs through the window, it’s clear he’s favoring one side. “I didn’t want to assume.”
Flopping down on the couch, he considers her with a look that seems too tired to be holding that much worry. There’s blood on his temple, and he winces when he sits back, reaching reflexively for his ribcage.
“Long week?” He just nods as she takes a seat next to him – but not too close – on what seems to be his good side. “Yeah, me too.”
He’s already heard about Fisk, but he swears it’s not why he’s hurt, and not why he’s come. Any other night, Karen might fight him on it, but she’s more shaken about another possible return, and she doesn’t even hesitate before she tells him.
“I’m pretty sure Matt’s alive.”
Frank just nods, measured, considering, before turning back to gauge her reaction. It’s why she wanted to tell him before Foggy, or anyone else, she realizes. He won’t judge her for believing, won’t think it impossible or even improbable. He’s seen people come back. Hell, he’s done it himself.
“Devil never really dies, huh?” If she listens really hard, she’d swear that’s fondness on his words.
“You’re one to talk.”
He snorts, “Classy,” and it rings in her ears. But before she can make the connection, he grabs a hold of her left hand and pulls it toward him. “You’ll keep your distance, yeah?”
She turns to meet his eyes, but he’s not looking at her, he’s looking down. When Karen follows his heavy stare, she understands why. Her throat tightens a little at the sight of his thick, calloused thumbs trailing down the tops of her fingers. He’s built to kill, but he holds on to her like she’s made of glass, and she loves it and she hates it.
“From which one?”
“Either.” They suck in the same breath when he doubles back to loop over her ring finger. “Both.”
“Again, one to talk.” She’s laughing to herself, nervous, quiet and not quite real, before she realizes he’s gone still.
“I never put you in danger.” It’s the Punisher’s voice she hears as Frank drops her hand. She pulls it back to her own lap, and her stomach takes an uncomfortable flip. “I told you from the beginning, all I wanted was to keep you safe.”
“Frank, I know.” She believed him the first time he told her so, despite the fact that he was chained to a hospital bed at the time. Even then, she thinks, he never understood her concern for his own wellbeing. “I meant you should stay away from them, too.” He snorts again, but this time it’s derisive.
“I’m serious,” she tells him, leaning closer but still keeping her hands to herself. She hopes he can see it on her face, everything she’s trying to tell him. “You can’t make a move, there are too many people in this city that want you dead. And you can’t be following me around, waiting in the shadows to jump in if I’m in trouble.”
He doesn’t even bother addressing her first point. “I can’t let anything happen to you. You know that.”
“Do I?” Her insecurities can’t help but test him. His eyes go almost feral.
“You know that.”
He really is something to see, all wound up like that, but she’s had about enough self-righteous heroics to last a lifetime. “And what about what I need, huh?” Karen’s barely slept in weeks, exhausted by her recurring stint as an emotional caddy to a pair of starkly different men with the same death wish – Sisyphus, with two extra boulders. “What about keeping you safe?”
It’s the disbelief in his reaction, really, that gets her. One minute she’s ready to throttle him over his penchant for recklessness, and then he looks at her like he can’t even believe she’s real – and suddenly her lips are on his.
The first kiss is chaste by most standards, but she feels it all the way to the tips of her toes, the ends of her fingernails, and she’d swear even down the strands of her hair. He responds immediately, but lets her lead the whole way, and she takes maybe more than she should, pressing up to her knees on the couch and cupping his face to direct him.
He doesn’t need much instruction as turns out, licking hesitantly into her mouth and taking a half-beat to pant her name across her lips before pressing in again. She savors every second, knowing they should have done this sooner, knowing they won’t get the time they deserve. He’s sweeter than she could possibly have imagined, and it helps her stomach the bitter words that have to come next.
“You stick your head out of the ground for even a second, Frank, odds are it’s getting shot off.” Her hands are pressed to his cheeks as her nose brushes against his, and she feels it in the delicate, mottled bones under her fingers, he’s trembling. “Especially with Fisk back — you’re in far more danger than I am. And I can’t risk you. I won’t.”
“Karen.” It’s a whole paragraph, the way he says her name. She kisses him again, and doesn’t give him a chance to argue.
“Promise me. Or I’ll run, and I won’t tell you where I’m going.” His brow furrows, and he pulls back a bit, enough that she drops her hands to his shoulders. “I would hate it, but I’d do it to keep you alive.” It’s an ultimatum steeled by experience, and tested by tragedy, which makes it easy for her twinging heart to ignore the way his expression flags.
Karen expects his challenge, but she doesn’t expect it to make her shiver. “I’ve found you before.” She just shakes her head softly, trying her best to mute her reaction to him.
“I’ve done my share of disappearing, Frank.” A story for another time, but she hopes he’ll believe her all the same. “I think I could be really good at the next one. Promise.”
It’s too much to ask and she knows it. He won’t be able say it out loud, but his expression goes from warning to resigned, still tinged with a healthy dose of fear.
“Just don’t go looking for it, okay?” He kisses her cheek, and then, like he just can’t help it, presses one more to her lips and tips his forehead down to meet hers. “You promise me that.”
She nods silently, and buries her face in his neck, wondering which of them thinks she’s lying, and which of them is right. But he just says “Okay” on a sigh, arms tightening around her back.
Maybe it’s an impossible dream, trying to claw their way to heaven in the violent madness of Hell’s Kitchen. Maybe it’s insane, that she thinks of Frank as the angel on her shoulder; but there was already a devil on her other one when they met. Maybe it’s more fitting than it seems.
It becomes something of a pattern after that, their stolen Sunday hours together.
He’s in and out of the city – Karen doesn’t know the specifics of his schedule, but she takes to leaving the living room window unlatched on Saturday nights. Frank hates that, but not enough to not crawl through it, usually when the hour is still dark enough that he can make his way through the streets in peace. Sometimes he comes to her after a long week on a job site – she’s seen enough evidence to believe he’s gone at least partly legit – but sometimes it’s something else.
Sometimes there’s blood under his fingernails and clouds in his eyes that barely lift by the time he has to go again. But they never talk about it.
They spend hours on her couch, feet tucked into each other’s laps, sharing stories and each other’s space, but studious avoiding the Matt and Billy and Fisk of it all. They spend even more time tangled up on top of the covers on her bed, all hands and lips and disbelieving glances. It stays more PG-13 than Karen expects, but the intimacy comes just as naturally as it did the first time. Maybe it’s always been there.
But they never really talk about it.
The closest they come to confronting their realities is a flash of worry in the eyes, a hug that’s just a little too tight. He kisses her, hard and warning, the night she tells him about the Fisk story she’s pitching to Ellison, muttering something like “too brave for your own damn good,” as his teeth catch on her lower lip.
She returns the favor the next week, practically tackling him the minute he shows up. He can probably sense something’s off – he makes a face when he pulls away like he can taste her desperation, the copper burn of adrenaline that’s been in her mouth since she pulled a gun on a group of catcalling teenagers.
But she doesn’t talk about that either. She doesn’t tell him when feels like she might be getting in over her head with Jasper Evans or Ray Nadeem. She doesn’t tell him what Sister Maggie says to her about holding on to people who try to push you away. And she certainly doesn’t tell him how some nights, she still looks skyward, scanning the rooftops for his silhouette.
Maybe she doesn’t want him to save her, maybe she just wants him around. Maybe she’s spent so much time looking for reminders that she’s still alive, and the feeling of his lips on hers is the best she’s found yet. Maybe the night she tells Foggy the truth about Wesley is the night she knows she’s in too deep, falling into bed drunk, murmuring Frank’s name into her pillow and wishing like hell that it was the weekend.
“I want you to tell me I’m a bad person.”
Karen wakes the next morning with a pounding head and a mouth full of cotton and still, the worst she feels is when she hears her office window slide open and knows for certain that it’s still not Frank.
Her first thought is that someone tracked him there, and she readies herself for an attack. Unnecessarily, as it turns out – though Matt Mudock, ever the prizefighter, manages to land more than a few blows. “I can’t protect you,” he tells her, redundantly, and she wants to scream.
Karen gives as good as she gets, she always has. Later, she’ll worry for a moment that she was too hard on him. But Matt asks her to yell at him, and it’s like looking in a mirror. He asks her to help him and it’s deja vu. It’s never fair to compare them, but it feels impossible not to, sometimes. At least Frank brought her flowers. At least Frank said, “Please.”
She shuts her bedroom door behind her when she’s said what she needs to say, trusting Matt to leave on his own. The coffee’s just starting to buzz through her system, but she flops down on the bed, burning with the futile wish that her life was just a few shades closer to normal, that she was the kind of woman who could just grab the phone in her bag and call when she was somehow already having a shitty day at 7:30 in the morning, that Frank was the type of man who could drop what he was doing and hop a cab across town to be at her side.
When he does show up that week, she’s still in a mood. She goes very still when he leans in for a kiss, and that’s all he needs to know something’s up.
“I don’t know why it all feels different now that he’s back.” She’s sitting on the side of her bed, kicking her legs against the box spring aimlessly. “I don’t think I ever really even believed he was dead, but…”
“But you mourned him,” Frank offers. “You weren’t ready to see him again.”
“It’s not that,” she tells him, with a shake of her head. “It’s just that it’s not him that came back. He’s not the same.”
Frank stays silent, with an unreadable expression.
“And I knew, I know, how that can happen,” she adds, with quick, self-conscious glances in his direction. “I just wasn’t ready to lose him like this.”
“He was important to you.” It’s not a question, but it is in a way. She remembers his tone from a jailhouse holding cell almost a year ago. “That was hard for you, in there.”
She nods, like she did then.
“He was important to me. His friendship was important to me. What we had, that connection–” She doesn’t really have the words and she doesn’t think Frank would probably want to hear them if she did. “But I don’t know, I think he may have left all that underground at Midland Circle.”
He goes quiet again, for a long moment.
“I’m sorry,” she offers. “I know you don’t want to hear…”
“The first time I wanted you, it was because you were his.” Karen shivers. This time she’s back in that hospital room, dropping Matt’s hand and steeling herself to meet The Punisher. “And I think you know that.”
It’s clear what he’s trying to do, but she can’t let him convince himself that it’s working.
“I don’t want your confessions, Frank. You don’t have to atone for anything with me, and I’m in no position to grant you salvation.”
She considers him for a moment, before adding, “Just in case that’s why you keep coming here on Sundays.”
Frank smiles wryly to himself, for just a second. And then he’s looking up, and right through her.
“Don’t have much business with the guy upstairs, these days. Didn’t think you did either.”
His eyes flash, but he leaves it there. “If you say so.”
Later, Karen will watch as a man of God sacrifices himself on an altar, and she’ll realize that the warning in her head has started to sound more and more like a peal of church bells. But she asks him now, anyway.
“So what do you want, Frank?” His eyes flash, fierce and focused, and she feels it in her kneecaps. “If not for redemption, why do you keep coming here?”
Maybe he tells her. Maybe he doesn’t. Maybe he reaches out and takes her in his arms, and that’s when she understands – he’s not looking for someone to guide him to the light, he’s looking for someone to walk with him through the fire.
The restless night and day after the attack at the Bulletin is one big blur. Karen sees the faces of her latest victims on the backs of her eyelids, but beyond that, there’s not much. It’s like someone took a remote to her senses and turned them almost all the way down.
When Ellison tells her to clean out her desk, bile burns hot up the back of her throat and her whole mouth catches fire. When she digs in her purse and roots out the burner phone, her hands fumble with the buttons until she thinks twice about turning it on.
When she calls her father later, and he tells her what she already knows – that there’s no going home again – the ringing in her ears sounds like two dozen cellphones chiming in plastic bags.
Her shoulders are still shaking with sobs as she opens her apartment door, and by the time she’s locked it behind her, Frank’s wrapping his arms around her waist, pressing his lips to the base of her neck. She doesn’t flinch, she only cries harder.
He’s there. He shouldn’t be; it’s not the right day, not the right time. But he is. And he’s spinning her around in his arms and kissing her throat while she fists a hand at the back of his head and sobs into his temple.
“Baby,” he whispers, so soft and tender that she hardly hears it. “God, sweetheart, I’m so sorry.”
Her brain is buzzing with static still, but her vision actually whites out for a second at the soft words he doesn’t even seem to realize he’s using to decorate her skin.
“Karen, jesus.” He heaves a deep breath and his hands cup her cheeks as he makes his way up to meet her eyes. “I tried to get there. When I heard it was him, what he did–”
She stills in his arms and takes a full step back, cutting him off as her blood runs ice-cold. “It wasn’t him. And I told you to stay away.”
“I don’t care.” The answer is heartbreakingly immediate. There’s no consideration to it at all. “If your life is on the line, I don’t give a good goddamn what you told me.”
It’s the wrong thing to hear when she’s feeling like a live wire. “Fuck you, Frank.” She shoves him a little, then comes back with her fists, throwing erratic punches at his solid core until he circles her wrists with wide, warm hands. “You’re supposed to be the one who doesn’t lie to me.”
“I didn’t,” he answers, shaking her softly. “I don’t make promises I can’t keep.” There’s a beat and then Karen collapses into him, still hating that he’s right.
“This is a goddamn stalemate, Frank,” she sobs into his shirt. “I can’t put you in danger, you can’t stand to see me get hurt. We can run this a million times, and I don’t think we’re ever gonna get it right.”
“Yeah,” he grunts. “I know.”
She takes in a shaky breath and sniffles as she pulls back to look up at him. His hands are still wrapped around her wrists, but his thumbs have started to rub a soothing pattern at her pulse points. She has two fistfuls of his shirt and he has that look on his face. “So what do we do?”
“We keep getting it wrong,” She lets out a little laugh, but Frank remains entirely earnest.
“I just wanna be here. With you,” he continues, and she’s overcome with the urge to kiss him – she wants that, too. So she does, going up on her tiptoes to smudge a messy smile on his lips as he keeps talking. “Whenever I can. However you’ll have me.”
She steps back, taking a deep breath and his hands in hers, to lead him over towards her bedroom. But they don’t quite make it before he’s pressing her against the wall.
“I don’t know if there’s ever gonna be a right answer, Karen,” he admits after a few long moments, catching his breath with his temple pressed to hers. “But I’ll pick the one where I get to hold you.”
Fittingly, it’s the first night he’s ever actually climbed into her bed with her, the first time he kicks off his boots and shrugs out of his jacket and allows himself under her blankets and into her embrace. When she rolls towards the center of the bed and he reaches out to curl her up to his side, like they’ve done this a million times before, she feels victorious and almost giddy.
They stay up all night like that, wrapped up in each other, and she tells him everything. She tells him what it feels like to fire a gun at someone you thought you loved. She tells him what it feels like to wake up upside-down in your own wreckage, alive, but wishing you weren’t. She tells him what it feels like to be turned away from the only home you’ve ever known.
She tells him, and his eyes darken with grief she wasn’t expecting. Karen knows these things are nothing new for him, but Frank never puts his experiences on a scale. He just listens, and he wraps her up and presses his lips to her eyelids when she talks herself to sleep, dozing off for a moment or two.
Maybe he lingers later than he should when the hours start to fade up to morning, barely making it down the street before Foggy’s at her front door with his latest bright idea. Maybe she puts it on a little for her friend, but she is truly wrecked by the lack of sleep and the burned-off adrenaline. Maybe the thing that really has her struggling to put one foot in front of the other, though, is how she already misses him.
Frank shows up early again on the night she threatens Fisk, and Karen wonders if she really has blown their unspoken arrangement the whole way to pieces. Part of her, she realizes, wants that to be true in the most desperate way.
She sits in it for three hours, the feeling of looking up at the security camera in Fisk’s suite and knowing for certain that she was ready to die for the cause. She sits with the realization that she was wondering about herself when she asked the villain how broken he was. She sits with the knowledge that she may have signed Matt’s death warrant, and for nothing.
And then Frank slips through her window, and she stands, and feels a million different things at once.
She expects him to be angry, furious even, at her recklessness. But he’s never what she expects. He’s shaking as he approaches her in her kitchen, but it’s terror in his eyes instead of rage, and his voice barely raises above a whisper.
“Sweetheart,” he grits out. It doesn’t even take her by surprise this time. “What the hell were you thinking?”
“You’re worse than Foggy,” she practically sneers. “You both should be more concerned that it didn’t even work.”
“Work? I don’t give a shit if it worked, Karen.” There’s the anger. She knew she’d get it back if she gave a little of her own. “Micro’s got access to every camera in the city. I had to watch in damn living color as you painted a target on your own back – and for what?”
“I don’t need another self-righteous lecture on protection, Frank,” she snaps. “You can save it. You have no obligation to keep me safe. And besides, I told you to stay out of it.”
“Obligation…” he stammers, and it’s only then that she realizes the burning in the back of her throat might be a side effect of putting another vigilante’s words in his mouth. But there’s no good way to explain that now, and he looks almost betrayed.
“I got no claim on you, Karen, I know that.” He starts pacing then, nervous eyes darting to gauge her reaction as he continues to speak. “But you got one on me, understand? What’s left of me–”
He pauses for a long moment, and she wonders if he’s picturing something jagged, and sharp enough to cut at the touch.
“Frank.” She doesn’t know what she needs to say, but she’s ready to say it to soothe the ache that seems to live in the crease of his brow.
“Part of me belongs to you.” He’s never what she expects. “I’m sorry that it’s true, but it is.”
“Frank.” A whisper so thin it’s barely his name. They’re both hiding from the weight of the real words.
“If something happened to you…” His nostrils flare at the thought, he looks furious and wrecked and she can’t let him finish the idea. She reaches out and cups his cheek, watching his eyelashes flutter.
“I’m sorry I scared you. I am. But nothing happened. I’m okay.” Karen waits for a few beats, until he starts to mellow, then takes his hands in her own and squeezes. “Part of me belongs to you too, you know.”
She watches him process the words, watches the way the corner of his mouth twitches with the tiniest bit of hope when he looks to her for confirmation. She nods and then he’s hauling her fully into him, smothering her surprised gasp with his own lips and pulling her backwards towards her bedroom.
This is how it happens, not in a hail of a bullets or a hurricane of their own fleeting mortality. It’s just a storm of their own making, just the colliding fronts of worry and want and everything else that’s conspired to shape the matching puzzle pieces they’ve become.
They probably should talk about this more, Karen thinks, but the time for conversation is in the rearview mirror almost immediately. Despite their violent naissance, she has to admit that part of her always thought that she and Frank might come together in a hushed passion, something they would try to keep quiet, hidden from the world. Their first kiss, she remembers, had that kind of calm. But this isn’t that.
This is terror and longing and hope and anguish in a kiss as they lose their clothes on the floor. This is the sounds of pain and pleasure and each other’s names echoing around her bedroom. This is pressing every single thing she’s ever felt for this man into the tips of her fingers as they rake down his back.
Maybe he gets a little carried away, marking her with his teeth and tugging at her hair. Maybe he apologizes, low and mournful, stubble scratching at her earlobe, never losing rhythm. Maybe she asks him, in a breathy, pleading whisper she has a hard time identifying, to do it again.
“I won’t be here next week.” It’s the first time she’s ever spoken of their little schedule aloud, fucked to hell as it all may be now. She probably only finds the courage to say it because she’s sated and naked and still in bed, pressing the words into his bare chest. “I have to go.”
“I know,” he says, but he only pulls her tighter, and she wonders what it is exactly that he’s been holding back. “You should already be gone, but I…”
“I’m selfish.” The words rumble through his chest and instinctively, she curls one of her legs over his bare thigh. “I wanted one more night here with you, like this.”
“Just like this?” She’s teasing, but God, she swoons a little when he flushes pink. She tilts her head and presses a kiss to his chin, watches his pulse tick at his throat. “You’re anything but selfish, Frank.”
“I’m selfish when it comes to you.” He lifts his head a little to look her in the eye. “Almost grabbed you by the shoulders and shook you that night you threatened to go disappearing on me.”
“Oh.” It’s all she says because “I love you” is just sitting on her lips, threatening to spill into the space between them.
After a long moment, he presses a kiss between her eyebrows. “Y’okay?”
“Yeah,” she smiles. “I was just thinking.”
“Thinking about what?” His smile is loose and almost flirty. He’s the most relaxed she’s ever seen him. She did that. They did that, together.
“Thinking about how I don’t have to feel your heartbeat to know if you’re lying to me.”
“Yeah,” Frank answers with a curious look, taking her hand in his and pulling it press against his bare chest, “but you can if you want.” Then he grins again, almost lecherous, and something swoops in her stomach.
Maybe it’s the closest she’s come yet to seeing the man he was before all of this. Maybe she would have loved him just as much.
She learns about the man Frank used to be – and then she learns about the man Matt is now.
The brief, violent time Karen spends at the church is world-shaking in a different way, traumatic and revelatory. She meets Matt’s mother, in a coincidence that shockingly, can’t even be counted among her strangest. She adds Father Lantom’s name to her list of victims and feels her blood run cold when a pretender in the devil mask calls her by name. She watches Matt save her life again, standing just outside herself.
And then of course, there’s the man himself. She gets a reminder of what it feels like to be close to him, pressed together in an tomb that feels like a metaphor, and she feels herself drift as far away as she’s ever been when he scolds her for blowing his one shot with Fisk. Her whole face burns with the shame that sparks in her chest and when she hangs her head, she hears echos of another voice on her memory.
“I will come for you.”
Karen’s done some thinking, about what it means to love a man like Matt. Or Frank. Men who make a home in morality’s menacingly opaque grey area, who do bad things for good reason. She supposes it must be better than the alternative.
Frank is a villain, that’s what Matt thinks. He’s a killer, and so that makes him the bad guy. It’s a noble point of view, on its face, but it’s also myopic, and after everything they’ve been through, Karen keeps coming back to the reality that she’s no longer naive enough to find it endearing.
It’s not as easy as hero versus villain, it never is. She’s not the kind of woman who gets to make a choice that obvious.
Maybe the truth is simple in a more tactile way, however, like basic physics or the pull of the moon. Maybe it’s the about the way Matt reels her in and then lets her loose again, back and forth, like a rolling tide. Maybe it’s about how Frank is the only person who’s ever cared enough to just hold on.
Karen’s lost the ability to be surprised when another day defies the odds to dawn, but she leaves the church feeling freed of something heavy. Holing up in the boxing gym feels infinitely more comfortable, she tends to pass out on the couch in the office and only once dreams of waking up to Frank glancing a blow at the heavy bag.
She misses him, acutely now. Every day she thinks it will dull and every day she’s gutted by the opposing reality. Some days, she wraps herself in his sweatshirt to sneak around the city, pretending he’s just over her shoulder, and by the time she gets back she’s almost convinced herself. And while she’s certain Frank knows where to find her, she forces herself to be grateful that he stays away for now. This is the best way to keep him safe, she reminds herself. This is what you wanted.
She and Foggy watch Nadeem’s confession together, and after they get the details to Matt, it’s all she can do not to collapse right in front of her friend. But she doesn’t want to, not this time. He’s got enough to worry about and she’s not quite ready to share.
So she slips away to the bathroom to sob, and only when she get there does she realize that, in the haste of her exit, she’s grabbed the wrong phone from her bag. It’s a million little things that make her finally press the power button to boot up the burner, but most profoundly, it’s the footage she just watched: a good man who did bad things, rambling his final atonements and farewells into a tiny screen, all too aware he was about to catch a bullet between the eyes. Frank’s right, after all. There’s never gonna be a right answer.
She flips to the contacts with shaking hands and dials the only number listed, speaking immediately when it picks up.
“Karen?” It’s not Frank.
“Please, Karen, call me David.” He sounds like he’s smiling, and it makes her voice wobble.
“Are you okay?” Frank trusts this man. So she does too.
“Yeah.” She clears her throat. “Yeah, I was just hoping to talk to Frank. Do you know, uh, you have a way–”
Karen rolls her eyes to herself and winces. For everything that makes sense between them, this is where they are entirely ridiculous. She doesn’t even know how to contact the person who is closer to her than anyone else in this world. She doesn’t know where he is, or what he does, or where he lays his head on nights when it’s not next to hers.
“Let me try and patch you to his emergency cell,” David offers, with none of the judgement of her internal monologue. “It’s always a crap shoot whether he’s got it on him, though.”
“Okay, thanks,” she answers, with a confidence she doesn’t feel in the least. All of this distance was by design, but it it feels so unimportant now. “And thanks for the sweatshirt.”
It sounds like he chuckles to himself, and the thought makes the corners of her mouth turn up just a little. “Anytime.”
Then there’s silence, and then there’s two beeps, and then there is Frank.
“Karen?” He sounds like he’s running, and she chokes down a newly-rising sob. “What’s wrong? You okay?”
“Yeah. No, yeah, I’m okay, I just…” She trails off and stifles a sniffle. “I just wanted to hear your voice.”
He doesn’t buy any of it for a second. “Where are you?” Her breath catches in her throat, but she tells him.
“Hang on, okay?” he says gently, though the world around him suddenly sounds louder. “I’m getting in a cab. I’ll be there in 10 minutes.”
And he is, popping through the window to the back alley and wrapping her in his arms practically before his feet hit the ground. He holds her for a long time, she loses track with her face buried in the crook of his neck, but he doesn’t speak above a murmur. She wonders if he’s worried Matt is listening.
He holds her until they hear Foggy call her name across the gym. Frank’s arms tighten and he presses a kiss to her jaw, and then her lips, soft and slow. “Go on,” he whispers, slipping a folded piece of paper into her palm.
She raises the other hand to brush at her stunned lips as she watches him leave again, as quickly as he came. After a moment of longing that lasts longer than it should, she turns her attention to the note.
“See you Sunday.”
He’s right, she’s back in her apartment by the weekend, and he shows up right on schedule, with a brand new vase of flowers.
Maybe she builds herself back up, little by little. (She’d say brick by brick, but she’s not sure she’s made of stuff that strong.) Maybe she and Matt and Foggy make good on their new napkin and find affordable office space and a substantive clientele. Maybe it all holds well enough that she can play at being a whole person, one day at a time
But maybe every week, for a few stolen moments – Sundays, but not always – she falls completely apart. They both do.
She keeps the phone turned off, at Frank’s insistence. He’s there so much that it doesn’t really matter, anyway. They get sloppy with their timing and their cover-ups and the words they let slip in the earliest hours of the daylight. It works, and it doesn’t. She wants exactly this, and everything else.
“I do love you,” he says one morning. Well, really, he’s saying it back. They’re eating breakfast in her bed, backs pressed against the headboard. It feels simple, but it’s not. “I’m just not sure I know how to do that anymore.”
“I don’t really have answers for you there, Frank,” she admits softly, though her stomach’s turning roller coaster loops. “Everything I’ve ever loved has gone to hell.”
He reaches over to take her empty coffee cup from her hands, pressing a kiss to her palm as he places it on the bedside table. “Been there already,” he grins against her lips. “I know the way back.”
Maybe it’s the most he’ll ever be able to give her. Maybe it’s more than she’d hoped. Maybe it could be enough.