Work Header

my breath is for holding

Chapter Text

…Captivity that is shared is but half captivity.

-Alexandre Dumas


He hears her scream.

He has been half-expecting it since he saw her.

He saw the blonde hair first, the cascade of it across her shoulders, her head bowed, as if hoping it would hide her face. But long hair was neither mask nor shield, not in a place like this.

The guards paraded her through the cell block five days ago, barely able to hide their own smiles. She wore a white jumpsuit, too baggy across her waist and shoulders. Meant for a man. Just like the rest of this place. And while some of these men are here on non-violent charges—drugs, insurance scams and thefts—there are others. Ones with bloodstained hands and sharp-eyed faces. Too alert and too dangerous by far. Those were the first men to call out to her, hissing and beckoning through the bars of their cells, fingers reaching for her.

He didn’t reach. He didn’t even stand up from his cot; he merely watched as the woman was walked by—and vanished out of sight.

A woman in a place like this. A woman who looked like she should have been modeling office wear.

His first thought was, She won’t last a goddamn week in here. Followed by, What the hell are the guards thinking?

The point is, he has been expecting this.

Honestly, he’s surprised it took five days.

It’s coming from a locked cell block—and there’s the guard, standing there like nothing is wrong. Paid off, probably.

His jaw clenches.

This isn’t his fight. This isn’t his fight. This isn’t—

Goddamn it.

He rises from his cot and strides into the hallway.

Without hesitating, he slams the guard’s head into the bars, seizes the key from his belt and fumbles for the right one. It takes an eternity, then the key slides home and the door opens. He steps inside and there she is—two of these bastards struggling with her. Without so much as slowing down, he bashes his elbow into that man’s skull, where the jaw connects to the skull. Something cracks, and it isn’t the elbow. The man goes down without so much as a sound.

He has a shiv—he took it off the last man who tried to kill him. It doesn’t have the heft or the balance of a Kabar, but it’ll serve well enough. He grabs the second man by the hair, yanks him off balance, and slides the blade up between his ribs. The man gasps, tries to breathe, then falls in a heap.

There is a third man. He stands a few feet away, shaking. He’s young—probably trying to get into one of the gangs. He looks at the intruder with wide-eyed terror.

“Anyone else comes near her, I’ll make what happened to these two look like a goddamn mercy,” he snarls. The young man jerks back, then runs.

The woman is still breathing hard. She looks up at him like he’s a new monster she’s going to have to face.

She’s so thin. Maybe late twenties, early thirties. No tattoos, no visible scars. One of her knuckles is split open, as if she managed to get in at least one good blow. There is still a cold, analytical part of his mind that files all of this away, even as he squats down before her. The less analytical part of his brain notes that she looks frightened but defiant, her gaze tracking over him as if looking for weak points.

She’s a fighter.


“Hey,” he says. The shiv is still loose in his fingers. He wipes it clean on the dying man’s shirt, then holds it out—handle toward her. Her eyes widen when she sees it. “Take this. Tape it to your leg—keep it on you at all times. Anyone else comes near you, don’t aim for the heart. Stab just below the ear, through the throat.”

She gapes at him.

He can hear the guards coming. “Take it,” he snaps, and she does. They’ll search him—they search anyone who’s taken to solitary. This isn’t his first time.

She slips the shiv into her clothes. Some of her fear has faded.

“Who are you?” she says, and he doesn’t know how to answer. It’s a question that hasn’t been posed in well over a year. Even those who don’t know him still know of him.

He’s Inmate Number 021974.

He’s the Punisher.

He’s the smudge of darkness that so many criminals have seen before they exhaled their last.


“Castle,” says one of the guards. “Get on your knees, now!”

There is clanking coming from the cell block door. The guards’ll be on him in about ten seconds.

“Take care,” he says. His voice is rougher than he might have wanted. It’s been a while since he tried to speak with any amount of gentleness. And then the guards round the corner and slam him against a wall.

Solitary doesn’t faze him.

It’s supposed to be a punishment. He knows that—he’s seen the statistics. It’s considered a form of torture, can cause everything from depression to hallucinations. But for Frank it’s just… quiet. He’s left alone with his own thoughts, and hell, maybe that is punishment enough. But solitary has very little effect on him; he has been alone since he woke up in a hospital bed, a bandage around his aching skull and needles beneath his skin.

For the deaths of those two men and the assault of a guard, he gets a week.

It’s almost laughable. It should be more. Hell, he should probably be on trial again, lawyers claiming that the only way to keep the world safe from Frank Castle is to put him beneath a layer of earth. But that was the one thing Curt made sure couldn’t happen; he was the one speaking with the public defender, arguing while Frank lay in a hospital bed and sluggishly bled from the wounds the Irish left on him. Frank would plead guilty, but only if the death penalty was taken off the table. Frank would serve out his punishment for the rest of his life behind bars, and the city would be safe.

Curt still sends books. Well—a book, every few weeks. He gets paperbacks shipped in from some bookstore in his neighborhood; the prison doesn’t allow books inside any other way. Maybe they’re afraid inmates will use them for communication or hide a blade between the pages. There’s no library; apparently, there used to be one, but they needed more space to house people. So the books that Curt sends are a comfort and a distraction, and Frank finds himself missing those pages as he waits to be released.

He spends that week working out as best he can without any weights. It isn’t exactly riveting, but it’s something to do.

The dreams wake him like clockwork—heart hammering, breath coming fast. He grinds a hand into his eyes.

Finally, on the seventh day, he’s released. There’s the usual lecture, the acknowledgement that he’s going to be charged with more crimes—add them to the fucking list—and then the guards tell him to get his ass to dinner.

The mess hall is one of the few places where all of the cell blocks congregate. It’s crowded and it’s dangerous and it’s more cliquish than Frank remembers high school.

Lucero is waiting for him; he must have heard about Frank getting out. Lucero’s just a kid—one who sat down next to Frank on his second day. Frank still isn’t sure if it was bravery or stupidity. Frank came into this place with built-in enemies. The cartel put out two hits on him in the first month. Both of those hitters ended up dead. And that’s just one of the gangs. There are a few bikers in here, too. Fewer Irish, at least.

But Lucero either didn’t know or didn’t give a damn. He began talking to Frank like he was a normal person, chatting about letters from home and his favorite tv shows. Frank allowed it because—because here is the thing.

Frank knows killers. He isn’t sure if it’s experience or instinct. Or hell, maybe it’s his own affinity for violence.

Lucero isn’t a killer. Frank knew that before Lucero talked his ear off, telling him about how he signed up for the army so he could go to college, only to get his leg broken in ROTC. He had to leave college without the scholarships and made the bad decision to help his cousin with a bit of business. That business being illegally transporting marijuana from one state to another. But he’s also not a bad kid. He’s gangly and always smiling, and Frank suspects that if he kid were white, he’d have been only given a slap on the wrist. Instead, he’ll be here until he’s in his early thirties.

The system is fucked. Frank knew that, logically, before he entered it but now it’s real in a way that’s undeniable.

“You are a masochist, man,” says Lucero, when Frank rounds the corner. “Getting yourself thrown back in the box? That’s what—eight times? In a year? It’s got to be some kind of record. And all the best shit seems to happen when you’re locked up and I’ve got no one to talk about it with.”

Frank grunts. Lucero talks enough for both of them.

They join the line, and Frank scans the room out of habit. Certain areas of the mess are claimed; others are empty—miniature DMZs in their own right. Frank usually takes one of the tables at the edge of the grid, near an exit. Food trays are passed through a window. Lucero takes the first and Frank the second. It’s the usual fare: canned vegetables past their sell-by date, meat of indeterminable origins, mashed potatoes that were clearly powdered at one point, and a heaping bit of margarine to get the meal up to the caloric standard that the state requires.

Frank strides to one of the DMZ tables and settles down. “What’s this I hear you ended up putting two guys on ice when they made the moves on our newest inmate?” says Lucero, taking a bite of the mashed potatoes.

Frank eats his own food without really tasting it. Food ceased to have much meaning a long time ago, other than as a form of sustenance. Sometimes he wakes, and in those moments that are still half-dream, he can recall the taste of blueberry pancakes, still feel the touch of Maria’s hand upon his wrist as he handed her a cup of fresh-brewed coffee.

Frank tries to force the memory away. “She still here?”

“Oh, yeah,” says Lucero, with a significant look. “She’s here.”

Frank follows that look—and he sees a small form wearing prison orange instead of newbie white. Her shoulders are drawn tight, hunched. She isn’t a short woman but she seems to be trying to make herself into one.

She is sitting at an unclaimed table. There’s another man beside her: one of the old lifers, but not the violent kind. Most of the white collar crooks in here stick together, bribe a bit of muscle into keeping them safe, while all the while paying one of the gangs for a little extra protection.

“Rumor has it that Dutton’s been sending over sweets,” says Lucero, turning back to Frank. “Not anything too expensive, but a few candy bars and letters. Heard someone saying that he’s trying to be friendly.”

Frank snorts into his vegetables.

Dutton isn’t officially a gang leader. He doesn’t belong to any of them—but somehow, he’s well-connected enough to keep a good amount of the guards in his pocket. Any product that comes in or out of the prison belongs to him. The gangs respect him and there’s some kind of exchange of goods and services, but Frank hasn’t made it his business to know. Honestly, he doesn’t give a fuck.

Dutton made him an offer, a while back. When Frank made it clear that he wasn’t going to be Dutton’s assassin, the other man merely smiled and said, Can’t blame me for trying. He never did force the issue; maybe Dutton realizes that if he tried, it’d end in blood. He’s one of the smarter criminals that Frank has met—which only makes him more dangerous.

“Hey, don’t you go starting things with Dutton,” says Lucero. “Defending her honor against three assholes is one thing but taking on the kingpin is another.”

“How’d you know I was defending her honor?” asks Frank quietly.

Lucero gives him a look, as if Frank just said something incredibly stupid. “I know you. And you don’t let that kind of shit slide.”

It’s true. When Lucero’s roommate tried to get a little too friendly with the kid, Frank broke both of the man’s arms and got sent to solitary again. Now, Lucero seems to regard Frank as something between a folk hero and a big brother.

“Who’s she sitting with?” asks Frank.

Lucero shrugs. “He’s one of them guys who keeps his clothes all pressed and talks like someone who watched too many old movies. Or hell, maybe he starred in them. He’s old enough.”

Frank nods, gaze on the woman. She rises from her table, scrapes the last remnants of her food off her tray, buses it, then hastens out of the room, head bowed low.

It’s of little consequence. No matter how hard she tries, she’s going to catch everyone’s eye. She’s a woman in a place where such a thing isn’t so much a rarity as an impossibility.

“Why’s she here?” he asks.

“Word is that the women’s joint is all full up or something,” Lucero says, shrugging. “So they put her here. Don’t know what the hell they’re thinking, up there in whatever courtroom thought that up. Either someone down here did something very good or she did something very bad. But I mean, have you seen her? I mean, of course you’ve seen her. She looks like my older brother’s wife or something. She was a kindergarten teacher. Glared at us if we so much as swore. This lady’s got the same look. Maybe she’s some hotshot corporate wife and they pulled off a bank heist or something. Who knows.”

“They got her in a private cell?”

Lucero shakes his head. “Cell block D. Unit 3, cell 7.”

Frank goes still. She’s in his cell block. Two doors down. Putting her in general population is—

Not his problem, he tells himself.

—So very fucked up.

After dinner, there are a couple of free hours.

Some of the men go to the yard; some people use their block’s rec room where there are a few old televisions and board games; some use the chapel; others remain in their cells. Frank usually stays in his cell and reads. He strides down the corridor, ignoring the glares from a few of the other guys. He’s not scared of them and they know it—and that’s half the battle in this place. His room is unlocked, as are all of them at this hour.

He steps inside and his breathing catches.

A curse rises to his lips but he never utters it. He merely glances from side to side.

Most cells have two beds—bunkbed style. He’s got a rare single, because no one wanted the Punisher to have a roommate. Not for his sake, but for whatever poor son of a bitch ended up with him. His room consists of a bed bolted to the far wall, a few built-in shelves, and a toilet in the corner. The room is tiny and reminds Frank of his freshman year dorm. He’s done a little with it: he has a string for drying laundry and a few items from the commissary tucked beneath his bed. His books, though—those were organized on the shelves.


Because they’re gone now. Along with his toothbrush, toilet paper, and every other thing easily grabbed. He’s just lucky his towels and blankets are still there.

Theft is common. But thus far, no one’s dared touch his things.

Frank’s jaw clenches so hard he can feel his teeth creak. It isn’t even the theft that makes him angry—it’s the loss of the books. Those are the only things that have gotten him through those three in the morning nightmares. A book and a reading light. And now they’re both gone.

He strides from his cell, fists clenched. A glance into the rec room and there are a few men in there, reading. But he sees no familiar covers.

The books are probably pulp by now—pages torn out to line someone’s bed to make it softer or maybe to thicken a hand-sewn blanket. It gets cold in the winters.

He’s not getting them back.

“Shit,” he mutters.

“You missing something, Castle?”

Frank glances over. Jackson leans against a wall, arms comfortably crossed. He’s built tall and hard, with more muscle in one arm than some men have in their whole bodies. He’s one of the hard types, and while he doesn’t have any gang connections, he has done work for Dutton. Killing him would be more trouble than it’s worth, and that’s the only reason Frank stays still.

Jackson’s blonde hair is buzzed short, and Frank would bet a month’s worth of commissary credit that he’s ex-military.

“Maybe I could help you look for it?” Jackson asks, smiling. “Some of the boys I heard were reading—shit, what was it? Some kind of romance novel? You into that shit, Castle? Pride and Prejudice? I mean, I’m not judging—everyone’s got their thing.” His grin unfurls like a poison seeping into water, spreading wide.

Frank doesn’t answer. He rarely talks to anyone but Lucero. There’s no point.

He returns to his cell to take stock of what’s left. He’ll need to make a list and visit the commissary tomorrow. He kneels beside the shelves, exhales hard. It’s a blow, but he’ll survive the loss.

It isn’t the books so much as—


A light voice makes him look up sharply.

It’s the woman. He still doesn’t know her name; he should have asked Lucero. She stands outside of his cell door, her arms around her chest. She keeps glancing up and down the corridor, as if she doesn’t want to be out in the open.

“You—you’re Frank Castle, right?” she says.

He nods.

Again, there is that glance up and down the corridor. Checking both directions. Then she takes two steps into his cell.

“They took your things to the rec room,” she says. “I—I heard everything getting divvied up. I happened to be walking by and saw—well. I managed to grab this.”

It’s only when she extends one of her hands that he realizes she was holding something against herself. As if to protect it.

“It fell out of one of your books,” she says.

It’s a picture, creased at the center, folded four ways. It’s a picture he knows well; he can recall every detail with his eyes closed. Three faces gaze back at him—Maria, Lisa, Frankie.

He didn’t dare keep the picture out in the open, so he tucked it into Moby Dick. Perhaps a bit heavy-handed of him.

His thumb brushes the corner of Lisa’s face. It hurts looking at her, but it would hurt more to look away.

This is the only thing of value he has left.

“Thought I’d lost this,” he murmurs.

The woman smiles a little. “Your family?”

“Yeah.” He places the picture on one of the shelves. The harsh light glances off of Maria’s face.

Frank looks up. The woman is still there, arms crossed over her stomach. Her split knuckles are just a faint red scab.

“Thank you, ma’am,” he says quietly.

Her gaze passes over him, and he wonders what she’s seeing. The Punisher, probably. His mug shot was splashed across all of the papers a year ago—crime of the century and all of that. She may not have recognized him that first time, but she sure as hell knows who he is now.

He wouldn’t blame her if she feared him more than any of the other inmates; he’s earned his reputation.

She nods. “You’re welcome.”

“What’s your name?” he says, before she can leave. The least he can do is stop referring to her mentally as ‘the woman.’

She looks at him, meets his eyes for a brief moment. Her posture is one of a person trying to hide, but there is a flare of something defiant behind her eyes. Something hard and steely. He wonders if she still has that shiv; he would put money on it being tucked inside her sock.

“Karen Page,” she says.

Chapter Text

Karen Page has heard of the Punisher.

She knows of the Punisher the way she’s heard of distant hurricanes and earthquakes: she knows the name and the damage, but not the exact sequence of events. She heard the tale in rumors rather than news stories, because when she picked up a paper it was to look for apartment listings, not true crime. Her new coworkers chatted amongst themselves and Karen caught pieces of the tale: of an ex-military man gone off the deep end, returning from overseas only to continue to fight in his own city. Thirty-seven people were confirmed dead but more suspected. There were arguments about whether the Punisher was a serial killer or a mass murderer and what the distinction was—and then Karen turned off the radio because she was putting her new ikea bed frame together and she wanted music.

So when she first meets Frank Castle, she thinks she can be forgiven for not recognizing him.

She’s a little busy at the moment, after all.

She has been expecting the attack, dreading it in the pit of her stomach, ever since she was put on a bus for this prison. She wasn’t supposed to be here; she was due to be sent south to an all-women’s facility. But overcrowding was the official excuse.

Karen has a few doubts about that.

She tries to recall those doubts when she remembers the slickness of blood between her fingers, how it seeped beneath her nails and stained her clothes. When she remembers the grip of a guard’s hands as he tried to strangle her. When she wakes in the night and remembers that both those men are dead, that one supposedly shot himself and another was stabbed and the knife was in her hand but she couldn’t have done it, can’t have done it—

There is no doubt in her mind that Karen deserves prison.

Just not for the crimes she was convicted of.

And maybe there’s some part of her that wants to give up, to just stop trying, but she can’t. It’s just not in her to roll over and give up.

She’s going to survive this. She has to survive this, to finish what she started.

Or at least, that’s what she thinks until the guards lead her down a corridor of the prison and she realizes how magnificently fucked she is. This is why Union Allied didn’t send another guard to kill her; they didn’t need to. In this prison, they won’t have to lift a finger.

It takes five days for the first attack to come. She hasn’t been showering, only using bottled water and washcloths to clean herself, but she needs to refill her bottles. She is walking down the hall when the three men come for her.

She manages to give one a bloody nose before they throw her to the ground. All of the breath is knocked out of her, and she sprawls there, gasping without truly inhaling, feeling as helpless and as angry as she’s ever been.

Then, he’s there. A fourth man—and in a few effortless moves, he utterly destroys two of the three men. Every attack flows into another—it’s brutal and quick and so very efficient. It isn’t even a fight; it’s like taking out the trash.

The newcomer snarls at the last man, gives him a warning, and Karen is sure—this is it. She’s heard jokes about prison wives, and she’s pretty sure that she’s about to become far more familiar with that concept than she ever wanted to—

Then he holds out that shiv, hilt toward her.

“Hey,” he says. “Take this. Tape it to your leg—keep it on you at all times. Anyone else comes near you, don’t aim for the heart. Stab just below the ear, through the throat.”

She gazes at him, uncomprehending. Does he want to pin that man’s death on her? To make it look like she’s the one who killed him?

But then again—a weapon. A weapon in this place where she feels like she’s drowning and he’s throwing her the thinnest of lifelines.

“Take it,” he says, more sharply. Then she hears it—footsteps. Others are coming.

She takes the shiv. It’s warm against her fingertips; at least he took the time to wipe the blood off. She slips it beneath her jumpsuit. Her clothes are ill-fitting enough that probably no one will notice.

The man still makes no move toward her. He appears to be studying her, a frown line heavy across his forehead.

“Who are you?” Karen asks. Because the last thing she ever expected to find in this place is a savior.

Those don’t exist, not in the real world and certainly not in here.

That line deepens, and when his eyes meet hers, her heart stutters.

She knows that face—she saw it in the newspaper a year ago.

Which is why it doesn’t come as a surprise when one of the guards snarls, “Castle, get on your knees now!”

The man doesn’t move. He keeps looking at Karen. When he speaks, his voice is surprisingly gentle. “Take care.”

He doesn’t so much as flinch when two guards seize his arms and shove him up against a wall.

After that, there are questions. Karen is brought into a CO’s office and she explains she was attacked and that man saved her.

The shiv presses against the soft skin of her lower belly and she tries not to glance down at it, in case her posture gives something away.

Here is the one good thing about being the lone woman in a men’s prison: the CO in charge takes one look at her, shaking and wide-eyed, and he says she can go back to her cell for the night. Someone will bring her dinner. This man—a thirty-something with prematurely gray hair—regards her with something like weary pity. Karen prides herself on being able to read people, and she doubts this man is on the Union Allied payroll. If he were, he could afford nicer shoes.

That night, Karen curls up on her narrow bed. She slips the shiv out of her waistband and gazes at it. It looks like it once might have been a hex key, but someone sharpened the long end. She turns it over, remembering the flash of dark gray between that man’s fingers.


Frank Castle.

The Punisher.

She tries to recall the little she remembers from the news—it isn’t much. Castle was a former soldier who took it upon himself to kill those involved with organized crime. That’s all she really knows.

Well, that and he fights like he was born to it.

Two men won’t be getting out of this prison—and maybe she should feel bad about that. But after the last few weeks—after the nightmare her life has become, she cannot regret that there are two less people in this world that want to hurt her.

Prison is everything—and nothing—that she expected.

She didn’t expect the boredom.

Because prison is really, truly boring.

She doesn’t have a work assignment, not yet. She can’t shower, she doesn’t dare go to the yard, and she has nothing to keep her occupied. Not books nor magazines nor a phone.

Four days after she’s attacked, she finally cracks and wanders into her cell block’s rec room. There’s some kind of commotion and it draws her attention. She needs something, needs anything to occupy her mind, and her boredom overrides her fear.

“—Pride and Prejudice, what is this shit.”

“You shouldn’t be doing that, he’s going to be pissed when he gets out.”

“Fuck off, Sanderson. He’s not gonna know it was us. And besides, Hendricks went in there first.”

“I needed a pillow,” says another voice.

Karen steps around the corner. The rec room consists of a few couches, a tv with no remote control, usually set to a sports channel, some magazines, a few board games, and a ping pong table with no paddles or balls. It looks like the world’s saddest frat house, only without the alcohol. But now, that ping pong table has a heaping pile of books, and what looks to be a few other things—she spots a toothbrush, a comb, and a pillow beneath a man’s arm.

“Castle’s gonna gut you if he finds you with that,” says one of the men. Sanderson, she thinks. She’s seen him around.

There’s another man—this one with arms like that of a weightlifter. “Calm down,” he says, voice level. He catches sight of Karen. “Well, look who it is.” He steps forward and Karen holds her ground. “Blondie.”

“I prefer Page,” Karen replies, keeping her voice steady.

The man’s smile widens into a full-on grin. “Well, aren’t you sassy. I’m Jackson. Come on in, we’re just divvying some things up. You into reading, Ms. Page-Not-Blondie?”

“I’ve been known to crack open a hardcover,” she replies, but she doesn’t approach.

“Free lending library going on, courtesy of a man who might not come back from solitary,” says Jackson. He reaches into the pile and withdraws a copy of Pride and Prejudice. “You want this?”

These are stolen. Castle went to solitary and so someone took his things. She looks at the books and blinks—somehow she can’t imagine the Punisher, the terror of Hell’s Kitchen, sitting down to read Jane Austen.

“I’ve read it,” she murmurs.

Jackson puts the book down and picks up another. “What about this one?”

“You’re giving the lady a book on dicks?” says another man. “Classy, dude.”

“It’s Moby Dick, asshole,” says Jackson. “It’s not porn, it’s boring.”

“Didn’t that have Captain Picard in it?” says Sanderson. “That was badass.”

Karen takes the book when Jackson hands it to her. It feels nice in her hands—paper between her fingers. She skims through the pages; she never read Moby Dick, not even in college. She could read it here, but she doesn’t want stolen property. Her position is tenuous enough without taking stuff from the man who saved her.

As she turns pages, something snags against her fingertip.

It’s a folded picture.

Before anyone can see it, Karen slips it into her sleeve. She hands the book back, murmuring a no-thank-you, and hurries back to her cell.

“Nice ass on that one,” someone says, and Karen ignores him. There’s laughter and the sound of someone being playfully punched.

She hates it here. She hates being reduced to little more than flesh and bones, to a thing that is fuckable and little else. This place is a microcosm of the worst that masculinity has to offer.

She returns to her cell, and it’s only when she’s sitting on her bed that she pulls out the picture.

It’s worn, a little old. Faded where it’s been folded. She can see fingerprints, as if someone touched it often.

There are three people—a woman and two kids. They’re smiling at the camera, smiling like they’re glad to be looking at whoever took the picture. It makes her heart ache; that kind of love can’t be faked. These people truly adore whomever they’re looking at—and this picture belongs to Frank Castle.

The boy kind of looks like him. Same dark hair, something around the eyes. The girl has his jaw.

The woman has a wedding band—which means…

He has a family. The Punisher has a family—and reads Jane Austen.

She isn’t sure which she finds more confusing.

Nights are the worst.

There is the sense of entrapment. She spends her first night just trying to breathe; the walls feel too weighty, the concrete so thick that she wonders if all of the oxygen will run out. She’s never been claustrophobic before, but the door is locked and she has never been so trapped before.

She hears someone scream. Then a snarl from someone else telling that person to shut the fuck up.

Most of the inmates have roommates. Karen has a cell to herself, which is a small mercy. But in the dark, curled up beneath a thin polyester blanket, she feels like the last person on earth. Like the world ended, and she’s caught in some kind of purgatory she cannot escape, and she isn’t sure she can do this, isn’t sure she can live through this—


No. She has to live through this. For Daniel, whose blood she isn’t sure will ever come off of her hands. It doesn’t matter that she didn’t slid the knife in—he is dead because she brought him into this.

And she’s going to live because she has to prove to the world that Union Allied did kill him.

She thinks of that USB drive—she hid it in her bathroom, inside the vent. Even if the apartment has a new occupant, that drive will still be there. No landlord cleans out the vents.

She can get it. She can blow this thing wide open.

She just has to survive this.

During the daylight hours, the oppressive darkness gives way to far too many people.

There are the looks. The gazes. The constant attention. She cannot walk anywhere without catcalls or murmurs. She’s the only woman in this place, and it doesn’t matter if she’s wearing a formless white jumpsuit or that she has no make-up and lost about ten pounds far too quickly. When she catches sight of herself in reflections these days, she sees a gaunt, exhausted woman she hardly recognizes. But it doesn’t matter, not to these men.

She doesn’t shower. The showers are communal, and she’s heard that they’re designed with half-barriers between them, meant to keep men somewhat private, but they’ll do little for her. She isn’t sure how long she can exist without showering, but she can’t risk it. She isn’t desperate enough yet. She manages with her washcloth and water and a bit of soap. It isn’t pretty, but it’s better than nothing.

The food is appalling.

The nights are too cold. Her blanket is thin and she can’t buy another one because her credit at the commissary hasn’t gone through yet. She’s been told it can take weeks.

Prison is terrifying, it’s making her feel on edge and constantly alert.

And then she gets a visitor.

A man awaits her outside of her cell; he is middle-aged and looks like he should be talking about how he grows bean sprouts in mason jars. He has that hipster beard, and his brown hair is shaggy. He nods at Karen and says, “Page?”

Like there’s any question about who she is.

“Yes?” she says.

The man holds out a paper bag. “Welcoming package.”

She doesn’t take it.

The man reaches into the bag and Karen flinches. She half-expects drugs or a knife or—

It’s a candy bar. He holds it for a moment, then drops it back into the bag. After that, he pulls out a bar of lavender-scented soap and a spare toothbrush.

“Dutton sends his regards,” says the man.

Karen still doesn’t take it. To accept a gift in this place could carry far more implications than she knows.

“It’s a fucking gift, lady,” says the man. “And you should take it. Just like you should say yes to Dutton when he comes to make you an offer. He runs this place. You’re gonna need protection, and if he’s the one offering it—well, you’re not gonna find anything better, not in here.”

He drops the bag on the ground, then walks away.

Karen is left there, shaking with impotent fury.

She feels utterly helpless and she hates it. She glances down at the paper bag, torn between pride and some hungry part of her that wants to cling onto any sense of normality she can seize.

Pride wins out. She steps around the bag and walks into her cell. She expects the bag to be stolen, but no one touches it. Not for several hours—when the man who brought it returns. He sees it, lets out a sigh, then picks it up. “You should take his offer now,” he says. “When it’s an offer, not a demand. Use what little power you’ve got in here, lady.”

Then he walks away, taking the bag with him.

She hates that he sounded reasonable and for one moment—she did consider taking the bag. She rolls over onto her bed and closes her eyes.

One unexpected thing happens—she makes a friend.

His name is James Hodges. He has dark skin and neatly trimmed gray hair and he wears his orange jumpsuit like it’s a vintage three-piece suit. He introduces himself with a kind of gentlemanly charm and talks like some of the men she served in her family’s diner. She knows his type: the kind of older men who like to flirt. It isn’t gross, though. There are no lewd comments or gazes at her chest; it’s more a gentle sparring match of words. Mr. Hodges comments on her taste in lunch choices—as if she has a choice. The joke makes her crack a smile. She learns that he’s in for forgery, which is further reassurance. He doesn’t have a violent record. They talk a little about what they like to read, and when Karen confesses she doesn’t have anything, Mr. Hodges lends her a book. It’s a cozy mystery, one of those mass market paperbacks often sold in airports. But it might as well have been printed on gold with the awe that Karen feels when she takes it from him.

“Thank you,” she says, desperately glad. Fiction is an escape, and she needs one. Maybe he knows that, because the older man simply nods and gives her a sympathetic smile.

“We’ve all been there,” he says. “The first few months are always the hardest.”

She reads the book that evening until the lights go out. It’s the best night she’s had for weeks.

When it’s lights out, she tucks the book beneath her pillow. She has already placed the picture there—and she pulls it out again. She has spent probably too much time gazing at the faces. Karen isn’t sure why she’s so fascinated by the picture; maybe it’s because they’re the only people it feels truly safe to look at. Maybe because there’s a kind of story written here, in the crease of a photograph that has been tucked into a pocket countless times.

The next day, Frank Castle is let out of solitary.

She hears the whispers when he walks into the mess hall that night. Karen doesn’t dare look at him; she talks to Mr. Hodges instead. They have a rather nice discussion about places they’ve visited up and down the eastern seaboard, and she listens to him talk about his favorite places to eat in Jersey, describing the foods in excruciating, delicious detail. It’s a pleasant kind of torment while they eat their prison-issue dinner.

That night, Karen listens.

She hears Frank Castle return to his cell, hears the low rumble of angry voices.

He’ll know by now that someone robbed him.

Part of her feels guilty, like she should have done more to stop it. But she’s one woman and she’s trying to make herself as invisible as possible.

But she won’t lose herself to this place, either. If she manages to ever get out, she still wants to be a little proud of who she is. So when the voices die down, she steps out of her cell. The coast is clear, so she hastens down the hallway to Castle’s cell. It’s two doors down.

He’s kneeling beside his bed, sorting through his things. Probably seeing what’s left.

Another pang of guilt. He saved her and she let his things be stolen.

“Hey,” she says.

He looks up. And for the first time, she really gets a good look at him.

His eyes are the dark brown of burnt umber and his jaw is edged with a week’s worth of stubble. He has a raw-edged vitality, and she can almost glimpse the energy thrumming beneath his skin. It’s in his posture, in the tapping of his finger against his leg. He is barely constrained in this place, and again, she wonders if perhaps she wouldn’t have been safer remaining in her cell.

But ‘safe’ has never really been where Karen does her best work.

“You—you’re Frank Castle, right?” she says.

He nods. He doesn’t make any move to stand. It makes her feel a little braver. She walks into his cell, feeling the walls like they’re too near and too solid, but she still walks in. “They took your things to the rec room. I—I heard everything getting divvied up. I happened to be walking by and saw—well. I managed to grab this. It fell out of one of your books.”

She holds out the picture.

She might have missed the emotions that cross his face—but she’s looking for them. Surprise flares in his eyes, but then it’s smoothed out into a frown. He takes the picture from her the way large dogs will gently accept treats—slowly, carefully. His thumb strokes the picture.

He looks… for a moment he looks fragile.

But then the moment is gone and he’s gazing at Karen as if she’s the dangerous one here. “Thought I’d lost this,” he says.

“Your family?” she asks.

“Yeah.” He puts the picture on one of his shelves, turning it so it’ll be visible from the bed. So it’ll be the first thing he sees in the morning.

A lump rises to her throat and she swallows it down.

“Thank you, ma’am,” says Castle. The formality startles her into looking at him. Their eyes meet and it feels like a jolt of electricity. She hasn’t dared too look many people in the eye since she came here; it’s too dangerous.

“You’re welcome,” she says, meaning it. She takes a step back; it’s a good note to leave things on. She doesn’t want to overstay her welcome.

“What’s your name?” he asks.

She goes still. He doesn’t know—but then again why would he? It’s not like they’ve said more than five sentences to one another.

“Karen Page,” she replies.

He nods again. She retreats from his cell, glancing down the hallway to make sure the coast is clear before returning to her own room. She sits on her cot, heart hammering.

She makes a plan.

She has always done better when she has a plan.

The main goal is she has to survive. There is no other option. She is going to survive and then she will get that USB drive and bring Union Allied Construction to its knees.

As for how she’s going to do that—that’s where things get a little fuzzy.

She has a single friend, one she doesn’t trust fully. She can’t trust anyone; for all she knows, Mr. Hodges could be on Union Allied’s payroll. She has a shiv, courtesy of the Punisher, and a man called Dutton who clearly has no lack of minions and luxuries.

She could go to him for help. She is under no impressions about what it would cost her—and she isn’t desperate enough to trade sex for safety.

Not yet, part of her whispers, and she shudders.

She has her wits, she has a shiv, and she has a sort-of friend who is an old man and looks like a good shove could knock him over.

At least no one else has tried to lay a hand on her, not since that first time. Castle set a rather bloody—if efficient—precedent.

That morning, she goes to breakfast with Mr. Hodges. They eat at one of the unoccupied tables, one that doesn’t seem to be claimed. Mr. Hodges is talking about a political scandal he saw on the news and Karen is half-listening and nodding alone. The food is tasteless: rubbery eggs, a stale biscuit, liquid that is probably supposed to be gravy, and a heaping bit of butter. No, not butter, Karen realizes after she tastes it on the biscuit. It’s margarine. She pokes at the lump, wondering why they’ve been given so much.

“It’s to keep our calories up,” says a new voice. Karen glances up and sees a young man. He has sleek dark hair and the kind of boyish grin that reminds her a bit of Kevin. He gestures at her tray. “You’re wondering about the butter thing, right? Every newbie asks. Well, it’s so the prison can tell the government we’re getting all of our nutritional needs.” He rolls his eyes, and Karen can’t help but crack a smile.

“How thoughtful of them,” she says.

The young man’s grin widens. “Mind if we sit here? Couple of guys are starting shit with the skinheads and we’re kinda in the middle of things, so we thought we’d look for a change of scenery.”

For the first time, Karen realizes he isn’t alone.

Castle stands a little behind the young man. He holds his tray with both hands, eyes scanning the mess hall constantly. His shoulders are tight, mouth drawn.

The kid looks—well, she’d be stupid to think anyone in prison could be harmless, but this kid looks barely out of his teens. As for Castle, she still owes him. She glances at Mr. Hodges, who merely raises his eyebrows.

“Fine by me,” he says, and Karen nods.

“I’m Lucero,” says the young man. He sits beside Mr. Hodges and gives him a respectful little nod. “You’re Hodges, right? I think I’ve seen you near the commissary. And you’re…”

“Page,” Karen says. “Nice to meet you.”

Lucero flashes her another smile then goes to work on his eggs.

Frank Castle takes the seat beside Karen. She notices that he sits on her left, so that he’s on the aisle end. It’ll make it easier for him to move should something happen. He could react in an instant, lunging from his seat.

She looks down at her food, reminded once again of the easy way he killed those two men.

He’s probably one of the most dangerous people in this room.

Hodges and Lucero are chatting about sports—baseball, she thinks. It should be safe enough to talk to Castle.

“Did you find your books?” she asks quietly.

He doesn’t look at her, rather he scoops some eggs into his mouth with a plastic spork. All the while, he keeps glancing at their surroundings. It feels like sitting beside a very alert guard dog, if she’s being honest.

“No,” he says, after a moment. “They’re not coming back. Lose something here, it’s gone.”

His gaze meets hers out of the corner of his eye—only for the briefest moment. In that instant, she feels as though she’s being taken apart under his gaze. He is clearly studying her, but there’s none of the covetous or appraisal that she’s seen on the other mens’ faces. He looks… frowny. That’s the only way she can think of it. He looks not quite irritated, not quite concerned, but something in between the two.

“Why’d you help me?” she asks.

His jaw flexes as he bites down on the biscuit. “Because I wasn’t about to just stand by.”

“Why not? Other people would have.” She isn’t sure why she needs to know, but she does. She knows plenty of guys who would have walked away—normal guys. Ones she went to work with, knew from college. Most of them would have called themselves good guys, even as they hurried away from distant screaming.

The fact that she found a man in prison who seems to have more honor than that is just… it’s not what she expected.

“I just wasn’t about to leave you there, all right?” he says flatly. “Anyone else bother you?”

She shakes her head.

“How long are you supposed to stay here?”

She shrugs. “I—I don’t know. They didn’t even tell me I was coming here until I was on a bus. I was supposed to go south, but something changed. They told me it was because of overcrowding.”

He makes a noise far back in his throat. “You don’t think so, though.”

She looks at him sharply. “I never said that.”

His glance tracks across the room again then back to her. “Any other person’d be making a fuss over this. They’d be knocking on the guards’ doors, saying this was all a mistake, that they had to go someplace else. They’d be calling their lawyer, not sitting here quietly. You—you’ve been hiding. Could be you think someone stuck you here on purpose, and you’re trying to lay low.”

It’s the most she’s ever heard him say, and she cannot reply. Not for a few seconds. He’s far more insightful than she might have ever guessed.

“Who’d you piss off?” he murmurs. The question is like a summoning—it calls forth the sensation of slick blood against her fingers and the raw pain in her throat as she woke screaming.

She looks down at her food. She isn’t hungry; fear and stress always kill her appetite. This food isn’t helping.

“I don’t know,” she answers honestly. Castle’s gaze feels too heavy and her own truths are too close to the surface.

Luckily, Lucero chooses that moment to ask Karen about how the weather’s been outside, and she gladly replies. It’s a chance to talk about something inconsequential.

Even so, she can feel Frank Castle’s gaze on her.

Chapter Text

He keeps an eye on her.

He isn’t the only one to do so—in the next few weeks, Frank’s cell block sees more traffic than it usually does in a year. There are comings and goings from guards that should be working in different parts of the prison, inmates who have enough money or sway to slip into the block, those from the neighboring areas claiming to just be passing through, and of course, a few of Dutton’s men.

The latter, at least, is never intrusive. Frank has seen Dutton’s second in command drop off paper bags outside of Page’s door at least three times—and every time, the bag goes untouched.

A gift untaken.

Good for her, Frank thinks. She understands the worth of gifts in this place.

He used to read to Lisa and Frankie when they were both young—the usual array of little golden books, of fairytales, a few picture books, and a compilation of Greek myths. He remembers reading out the—sanitized, thank god—tales of Zeus and the other gods. He still remembers the one about Persephone—of a woman dragged into the underworld, who survived only to entrap herself with pomegranate seeds.

He doubts that bag contains pomegranate seeds, but it’s all the same.

There are others who watch Page for far less infuriating reasons. Lucero follows her around like a puppy that’s found a new friend; Frank knows the kid is fond of his sisters and mom, and the kid misses them in here.

And for her part, Page is kind to him. Frank overhears some of their conversations in the dining hall; he and Lucero haven’t returned to their normal table. Frank usually eats in silence, listening to to the chatter. Page asks Lucero about what he studied at college, which is something Frank never thought to ask. “Business,” says Lucero, sounding a bit hesitant. “Wasn’t sure what I wanted to do once I finished serving, but I figured with business I could go to work for myself or work for someone else. Options, right?” He smiles ruefully. “See how well that ended up.”

“You can still do business,” says that Mr. Hodges. He has a gentlemanly quality to him, and he reminds Frank of old black-and-white heist films. Of the Rat Pack, of crisp suits and fingers elegantly holding cigarettes. “You just need to make the right connections when you leave this place. Not everyone has issues with ex-cons.”

“Yeah?” says Lucero. “Then how’d you end up in here?”

“They got me on forgery,” Hodges says. Then a slip of a smug smile. “All they managed to get me on, but it was enough to put me away for fifty years or so.”

“Just for forgery?” asks Lucero, frowning. “Seems a lot for some fake papers.”

“About three million dollars worth of bonds,” says Hodges, again with that faint bit of pride. “And my partner made the mistake of carrying a gun. Told him not to—it was unprofessional and got him shot when the cops saw it in his belt.” He shakes his head regretfully. “Only had one of us left to blame, so they took it out on me. But I never hurt anyone, and I figured the government could afford to pay for some extra bonds.”

Lucero laughs incredulously. “You’ve got some balls on you, old man.”

“That’s Mr. Old Man,” replies Hodges.

There’s a bit of laughter, then Lucero says, “What about you, Page? What’d you study at college?”

Page’s spork pauses on the way to her mouth. There are beans today—straight out of a can, with wedges of cornbread to soak up some of the grease. It isn’t a bad meal as far as lunches go.

“How do you know I went to college?” she asks.

Lucero scoffs. “‘Course you did. The way you talk.”

She smiles but it’s tight. “Communications with a minor in art.”

“Art?” Lucero says, delighted. “You an artist, Page?”

She shakes her head. “I did some sketches but I was never that good. I was much better working in an office.”

“Never did college myself,” says Hodges. “I did audit nearly half a degree. I made some fake student IDs, used a few to sit on on some classes.” He won’t explain more than that, though, no matter how much Lucero prods at him.

Lucero tries to draw Frank into the conversation, but Frank answers in monosyllables. It doesn’t deter the kid, though.

“What’d you study?” asks Lucero, tapping Frank’s tray.

Frank gives him a flat look.

“I know you went to college,” says Lucero. “I was going to be in the army, remember? I know how officer shit works. You majored in something.”

“You were in the army?” asks Hodges, glancing at Frank.

Frank bites back a sigh. This is why he shouldn’t have told Lucero anything; give that kid an inch, and he’ll run with it. “Marines,” he says, and hopes that’ll be enough.

“So what’d you study?” asks Lucero.

“Military science,” Frank says, mostly because he knows that answer will prove unsatisfactory. He takes a bit of pleasure in Lucero’s irritated glance. That’s what the kid gets for being nosy.

Page slides a look toward Frank, then away. She rarely makes eye contact with him, but he isn’t offended. She rarely makes eye contact with anyone in here—it’s a survival tactic, not rudeness. “What did you minor in?” asks Lucero.

But before Frank can think of a way to deter the kid, a fight breaks out across the room.

There’s a clamor and a shout, and then someone picks up a tray and slams it across another inmate’s head. Page’s spine goes rigidly straight and she grips her spork tightly, the way she might hold a weapon. Lucero curses and turns so no one can hit him in the back. The fight is about three tables away, just near enough to be worrying. One of the inmates is thrown across the table and hits theirs, staggering upright.

A siren blares. It’s so loud it makes Frank’s eardrums ache.

At once, the other inmates grudgingly lower themselves to the floor.

Frank gets down at once; better not to give the guards a reason to retaliate. He lays down on the floor, cheek against the linoleum, fingers folded against the back of his head.

It’s only when he’s on the floor that he realizes how close Page is; she’s a scant few inches away, her blue eyes darting around the room. Her blonde hair falls around her shoulders and her oversized orange jumpsuit gapes at her collar and shoulders. She’s breathing a little too fast.

She’s scared. Of course she’s scared—there are inmates fighting perhaps twenty feet away and sirens are going off and already, guards are preparing to storm the place.

He doesn’t know what else to do, so he jerks his head at her. The movement catches her eye and she glances at him.

Music, he mouths.

She frowns at him.

He makes his lips form the word a second time, and then, she seems to understand.

Minor? She mouths back, and he nods. Then he glances at Lucero and shakes his head.

Don’t tell him, he tries to convey, and she seems to get it.

She smiles—and he realizes it’s the first time he’s ever seen her do so. It’s small and quick but genuine. A bit of the fear leaves her posture.

Distraction can sometimes be the greatest gift a person can give another; Frank remembers sitting beside those in his unit who were injured, terrified, and the trick was to get them thinking about something else, something trivial.

It takes an hour for them to be let out of the hall. By that time, Frank’s shoulders ache and he’s ready to get off the floor. Lucero is good-naturedly grumbling about how he wishes people could just take their fights outside instead of at mealtimes, and Hodges winces as he rises. Page helps him and the older man accepts the aid.

They leave the dining hall with the others, and Frank keeps a close watch on Page as they move; he has learned not to trust crowds, not in a place like this. Sharp objects are all too easily concealed, and the guards wouldn’t arrive in time to save anyone. So Frank takes up a position at Page’s back, and when another man with tattoos all down his neck seems irritated by it, Frank gives him such an emotionless stare that the other man backs off.

The stream of inmates through the halls breaks apart as people head to their cells or work assignments. Frank has an hour before he needs to be anywhere, so he walks behind Page, back toward their cell block. When they turn down the familiar corridor, the tight line of her shoulders relaxes a little. She rests her hands on the bars of her cell, looks ruefully at the object sitting beside the door.

There’s another paper bag. Frank glances at it, then at her.

“You going to take it?” he asks. He isn’t referring to the gift—but to Dutton’s implicit offer of protection.

Page seems to understand. “No.” She glances at him, and there’s steel behind her eyes. He is reminded of when they first met—when her knuckles were split and bleeding from striking one of her attackers.

“Okay,” he says, because it really isn’t any of his business if she does decide to go to Dutton. But if she doesn’t want to, he’ll respect that, too.

Not for the first time, he wonders what she did to be thrown into a place like this—she doesn’t belong here. He’s met enough killers to recognize them, and Page has nothing of the sort in her. If she has killed, it was to save herself or someone else.

She goes into her cell and that’s the last he sees of her that day.

She doesn’t come to dinner.

Frank’s work detail is laundry.

Whoever is in charge probably decided that it was too dangerous to give the Punisher any work that included blunt weapons (janitorial duty), sharp objects (food prep, landscaping, maintenance work, the barbershop), or any kind of real responsibility (suicide watch, commissary, receiving shipments). So a few weeks after he arrived, he was told he’d be on laundry duty.

Frank decided not to mention he could easily strangle a man with the strings on the laundry bags.

After all, it isn’t a bad work assignment. It’s mostly boring—taking the mesh bags, checking the inmate number to make sure they were being dropped off on the right day, and to double-check the knot so that the bag won’t come open in the machine. The harsh detergent stays with Frank after he leaves the facilities, but it’s still a better smell than he might have been stuck with. All in all, he isn’t going to complain.

He works his shift, and then returns to his cell.

There’s a cart being pushed down the hall by an inmate Frank barely recognizes; he’s one of the lifers, with a bald pate and worn eyes. One of the mail delivery guys. “Got something for you, Castle,” he says. He either doesn’t know who Frank is, or he’s utterly unimpressed.

Frank takes the package—it’s been unpacked and checked over, of course. It’s a paperback book: In the Midst of Winter, by Isabel Allende. Looks like Curt has finally moved into the modern era of literature instead of just sending the classics. Or else he picked it because the cover is pretty.

It’s something to do. And Frank is grateful for the distraction.

There’s a letter, too.

It’s from Bill. Frank pulls open the ripped envelope and unfolded the paper. He recognizes Bill’s sloping handwriting, the way he always lifts the pen away from the last letter of every word. It makes his chest ache a little, the weight of the memories too much.

Bill didn’t come to his trial. He was overseas, working his first assignment for that new company of his. Frank can’t begrudge him that—he wouldn’t have wanted Bill there, would have told him to stay away if he could. Schoonover visited him once, saying he understood why Frank had done what he had, and he was still the best damn soldier who’d ever served under him. Frank tried to reply, but the words wouldn’t come.

There is a chasm between Lieutenant Frank Castle and the Punisher—and Frank doesn’t know how to bridge that. He can’t quite reconcile those two halves, not even to himself.

Bill writes to say that business is going well and he’s expanding into a new building. He talks about some of his recruits and how he’s giving them a life after service, something that Frank knows Bill must be pleased with. They talked a little about it before, how soldiers would return home with few job prospects and scars that could take a lifetime to heal. Bill’s doing good out there, and Frank is proud of him.

There are times Frank thinks about how close Bill came to being the fourth person that Frank lost that day at the carousel. He left merely an hour before the shooting, and Frank is desperately grateful for it.

At least one of his family got out alive.

He goes to the commissary a few days later—he’s out of toothpaste and coffee—and blinks in surprise when he sees the person working behind the plastic barrier. It’s Page. Her blonde hair is tied back at the nape of her neck and she’s stacking boxes on a shelf. Prisoners aren’t allowed to actually conduct these transactions, but they do help with stocking and shipments. It’s a coveted job, because it’s rumored that sometimes inmates are given some of the damaged goods.

The person working behind the counter is a guard.

Frank refuses to refer to them as COs. He knows what a CO is, and these assholes certainly don’t qualify.

“Yeah?” says the guard.

Frank nods a greeting. “Toothpaste and coffee,” he says.

The guard snaps his fingers at Page, who hastily sets down her boxes and kneels somewhere just out of sight. She hastens toward the counter and sets down a tube of toothpaste. “I can’t find the coffee, though,” she says, apologetically.

The guard sighs. “They were supposed to bring it in this morning, but—hold on.” He turns and strides toward one of the back doors, unlocking it and stepping through.

Which leaves Frank and Page standing there, plastic barrier between them.

He shifts on his feet, a little uneasy. “They’ve got you working the commissary?”

She shrugs. “It was either this or food detail and no one wanted to give me a knife.” There’s a twisted little smile to her words, and Frank isn’t sure if she’s serious or not. “I’ve got retail experience. And my crime wasn’t shoplifting.”

For a moment, he wants to ask exactly what her crime was. If the prison had computers, he would have looked her up—but all they have is hearsay and speculation.

“You need anything else?” she asks. “I can grab it while we’re waiting.”

Frank considers, then orders a few snacks: jerky is expensive, but it’s protein; peanut butter; and ramen—the chicken flavored kind. Page dutifully retrieves them all, setting the food in a line so the guard can check it out when he returns. She works briskly, efficiently, and doesn’t comment on his choices.

The guard returns. “Coffee didn’t arrive with this week’s shipment,” he says. “You’ll have to go without.”

Frank keeps his irritation in check; he merely nods and watches as the guard tallies up his purchases and pushes them through the barrier’s small window. Frank takes them back to his cell.

He cracks open the new book, stretches out on his bed, and settles into the story.

About an hour later, there’s a rapping at his cell door. He glances up sharply—no one knocks here. People will say, “Castle,” or the guards will simply walk in.

Sure enough, it’s Page standing outside.

“Hey,” says Frank, swinging his legs over the side of his bunk. “What is it? Someone giving you trouble?”

She seems startled by the question. “I—no. I just… here.” She hurries into his cell and sets something on the bookshelf. It’s a small bag of instant coffee.

“I bought extra last week,” she says. “But it’s kind of shit and—and I thought you might want some. It’ll last you until the next shipment comes in, anyways.”

He gazes at her.

She looks uncomfortable beneath his attention. “If you don’t want it, I mean…”

“You don’t owe me anything, you know that, right?” he says, in a low voice. If this is some kind of payback for that first day—

Page blinks, startled. “I—”

“If this is some kind of bid for protection, then I’m the last person you should be going to,” says Frank. “You want that, you should have taken Dutton’s gifts.”

A spark of anger flares behind Page’s eyes. “No. That wasn’t—I thought you might want the coffee. You drink it constantly at mealtimes and normally I’d say you need to cut back but we’re pretty much in hell, so I figure whatever vices can get us through… fine. If you don’t want it, fine.”

Acts of kindness here are few and far between. Frank can count the ones directed toward him on one hand.

And now Page can claim two of those instances: first his family photo and now this.

She goes to pick up the coffee, but Frank rises to his feet. She holds her ground.

“You know who I am,” he says quietly. “You know what I’ve done.”

It isn’t a question.

Page nods. “A little. I know you killed criminals.”

“I hunted them down and slaughtered them,” says Frank, voice uninflected. “I didn’t care that they had families, that they were people. And I don’t regret it—not for a second. So why are you still in here? Why do you sit at a table with me, talk to me?”

Page meets his gaze and holds it.

“Because there was a reason, wasn’t there?” she says quietly. “A Marine. An officer. A father—” He winces at the word “—and a husband. A person like that doesn’t just… do the kinds of things you did without a reason. Other people in here were motivated by money or greed or they made a mistake or because they just like hurting people. But you’re different.”

She’s too insightful for her own good; it’s uncomfortable seeing himself reflected in her eyes. He can just make out his own hard edges, and he wonders what she sees in his eyes—if perhaps she’s gazing at her own reflection or seeing something deeper.

“You had a reason to pull that trigger,” she says. “And it had something to do with your family, didn’t it? Someone hurt them and—and it was the only path you could see to take.”

He has to look away. It feels like all of the power in the room has shifted to her, as if she could pin him to the floor with words alone. Insightful, intelligent, and dangerous. As her little speech sinks in, something resonates in his chest—a recognition. He felt it when he saw Bill at boot camp, when Schoonover recruited him, when he and Maria’s eyes met in that park, when Curtis first clasped his hand after they survived a firefight together.

It’s that moment when he knows that someone is going to mean something to him.

And fuck—he can’t feel that here. Not here.

So he says the one thing that might drive her out of this cell.

“Only way you’d know that,” he says, “is if you’d killed, too.”

She has to look away and it’s a relief to feel the weight of her gaze lift off of him.

“Maybe I have,” she says tonelessly. She takes a step toward the cell entrance. “Keep the coffee.”

She leaves before he can say another word, and it’s only when he goes to pick up the coffee that he realizes his hands are shaking.

Chapter Text

Only way you’d know that is if you’d killed, too.

Karen Page goes to bed with those words still in her ears.

She doesn’t sleep all that well. Her dreams are moments when she thinks her life is normal again, when she is walking into work with a purse beneath her arm and a coffee in her hand, and she wakes unsure of where she is. Her nightmares taste like burning metal and gasoline and she can still feel coppery-slick blood across her hands and—and she always knows where is, when she awakens.

She isn’t sure which is worse: the dreams of normality or the nightmares that are mostly memory.

She wakes sometime in the night to someone shouting—then to another person yelling for him to shut up. Even in just the few weeks she’s been here, she realizes it isn’t an uncommon occurrence. She curls up a little more tightly beneath her thin blanket. It’s going to be winter in a few months and she isn’t sure what she’s going to do. She has little money in her commissary account; what little she had in savings she spent moving to New York and the rest has been swallowed up by late fees on her phone bill, her old apartment, and even her old internet service. Her public defender lawyer had managed to get all of those things halted, but only after her money was all but wiped out. Her work in the prison pays about twelve cents an hour, which she would have thought impossible before she came here. It seems a pitiful amount, particularly with how high the prices are driven up at the commissary. She won’t earn enough money before January to afford another blanket.

She exhales hard. She’ll deal. She always does.

Only way you’d know that is—

She squeezes her eyes shut, trying to block out the memory.

Frank Castle. The Punisher. She shouldn’t have offered him the coffee, she knows that. But he is one of the rare people in here that doesn’t seem to want anything from her and he—he’s different. Like she said, he isn’t a normal criminal. Lucero ended up in here because he screwed up and the judge was an asshole; Hodges is an utterly unrepentant white collar criminal, but he’s harmless enough.

Castle didn’t make a mistake. He didn’t commit crimes for money. He didn’t kill in the heat of the moment or lashed out in anger. What he did was methodical, calculated, and something all together unfamiliar. He’s a mass murderer, a serial killer, but as far she knows he never touched anyone outside of crime. That much she remembers from the newspapers scattered around the Union Allied offices, recalls her coworkers arguing about it. One of them said that if the cops couldn’t keep Hell’s Kitchen safe, maybe it would take vigilantes, while another replied that if the rule of law was eroded away, they might as well live in an anarchist society.

Karen has little faith in the law; she still remembers how all too easily police documents were smudged so her name was kept out of an accident report, and her ensuing encounter with the cops in her jail cell managed to destroy any remaining illusions she might have held.

So maybe she has a bit of interest in Frank Castle’s motives. She can admit that to herself. If he didn’t kill for money or for anger then there’s only one motive left.


He did it for love.

After seeing the way he stroked his fingers across that family picture, she’s willing to bet all of the scant money in her commissary account that he did it for them. And maybe it makes her foolish, but she can’t judge him for that. She once pulled a trigger for someone she loved.

She thinks of those faces in that photo, thinks of how young those kids looked. Maybe they’re still in the city, living with their mother or another relative. Maybe his wife got involved in organized crime somehow—took money from the wrong people. Maybe Castle pissed off the wrong people and they hurt one of his kids. There are all sorts of scenarios she can think of, but until she gets a phone or an internet connection, there’s no way to know the truth of it.

But there’s one thing she’s certain of: Frank Castle isn’t a monster. A monster wouldn’t have saved her that day they first met, wouldn’t have kept an eye out for Lucero, wouldn’t prize his family picture above all his other possessions.

He’s an asshole, but definitely not a monster.

She doesn’t get visitors.

The only people on her visitor list are her father and her lawyer—and only one of them has ever bothered to show up. The latter arrives on a Wednesday to discuss her appeal.

They sit on opposite sides of the plastic barrier, old-fashioned phones pressed to their ears. Karen always thought this was a prison movie cliche, but no, apparently this happens. She’s heard of other places where there are open tables, but apparently the prisoners here are too high risk for that. “—Slow,” her lawyer is saying. He’s a young thing, a scrap of a man just out of law school. He’s all fidgety hands and smiles and admitted on his second day that Karen is only his third-ever case as a public defender.

He has done exactly as well as she should have expected. But it isn’t like she can afford any better.

“Got to be patient,” he is saying. “We’ll get you moved, I promise, but right now all of the womens’ facilities are overwhelmed. There’s been an influx of inmates from other states due to other places being shut down, lack of funding, you know how it is.” He gives her what he must think is a sympathetic smile.

Karen nods. She can do little else. Raging against her circumstances will only prove to a judge that she shouldn’t be moved, that a max facility is the right place for her. She has to remain calm, to be the kind of inmate that isn’t any trouble, that a judge might be willing to transfer.

If that judge hasn’t already been paid off.

If her lawyer hasn’t already been paid off.

She hates feeling paranoid. She hates the itchy sensation of fear and unease that sets up along her arms, creeping up her shoulders and neck. Her fingers tighten on the phone.

She has felt hunted for months and she isn’t sure how long a human body can keep this up. Maybe one day she’ll simply crack.

“Thank you,” she tells her lawyer, because she knows it is expected.

She leaves the visitation room five minutes early; there’s nothing left to be said. She isn’t getting out of here any time soon.

Normally, she avoids the rec room. It’s too busy, too full of people, and most of them eye her in a way that sets her hackles up. But the visit from her lawyer has made her restless and reckless, and maybe she wants a little trouble. So she walks into her block’s rec room and surveys the scene in front of her.

There are two men playing checkers and another one is working on what appears to be a crossword book. A clump of men are watching football on the communal tv. Karen looks at the board games sitting on the shelf. Candy Land, which she hasn’t played since she was maybe five years old, Pictionary, Risk, Pandemic, and—

“What are we playing?” asks a voice from over her shoulder and she jumps. Lucero stands a few feet behind her, smiling.

He’s a welcome sight.

“Don’t you have visitors today?” she asks.

He shakes his head. “Mom couldn’t get time off work, Isabel has her kids, Andi’s still at school, and my brother’s out of town. They’ll see me next month.” He says it plainly, without malice or resentment. Lucero is really the person who doesn’t belong in here; Karen might not deserve this kind of prison, but—but Castle was right.

She is a killer.

Lucero isn’t. And she likes him. He is one of the few men to not make any sexual overtures—rather, he’s treated her like an older sister. Hodges clearly regards her like a favored niece and Castle—she isn’t sure how Castle views her.

They end up playing a game of Candy Land, because they don’t have enough people for Pictionary or Pandemic, and Risk would take about twelve hours, if she remembers correctly. The cards are bent and worn, clearly a donation. But there’s something cheery in the faces of the characters, and Karen finds herself enjoying the game despite herself. Lucero nearly wins, then finds himself sent back to the beginning of the board and takes his defeat with good-natured cheerfulness. He does make Karen promise him a rematch, and she agrees readily.

“I’ve got to return Hodges’ book to him,” she says, when they’re putting the game pieces away. “So I’ll see you later.”

At once, Lucero’s face falls. “Um—isn’t he in unit five?”

She shrugs. “I think so. Why?”

Lucero looks uncomfortable; it’s one of the few times she’s seen him apprehensive. “Listen, that’s—not a great unit. If you’re gonna go, you shouldn’t do it alone. It’s on the way to my cell—I can walk you.”

She knows for a fact that his cell is in the opposite direction, but she accepts his offer. They walk down the hallway together, passing other inmates. It’s one of the rare hours when most people don’t have work duty; some will be out in the yard, others showering, and some stay in their cells. They walk quickly, so any glimpse of Karen is a fleeting one. She knows that staying in one place too long is to invite trouble.

It’s about a fifteen minute walk to unit five; it’s one of the more crowded hallways and one of the guards stops her before she can walk inside. “You got a reason to be here, sweetheart?”

Karen bristles at the endearment but she keeps her voice level. “I’m returning a book to a friend.”

“And I’m borrowing a different book,” Lucero says quickly, as if he needs a reason to be there, as well. Maybe he does.

The guard raises his brows. “Your friend running a lending library?”

Karen forces a tight little smile. “Something like that.”

The guard scoffs but lets them pass. The instant Karen steps through the doorway, she understands why Lucero didn’t want to let her come alone. There’s an energy to this place; it feels like something tightly coiled. The men here aren’t chatting among themselves or playing cards. A few are talking, but in low voices. She catches sight of what looks like dollar bills on someone’s bed, being counted. She averts her eyes at once. Money is supposed to be banned in here.

She isn’t sure whose territory she’s on right now, and she knows how dangerous that is. But there’s still that terrible energy burning behind her ribcage, and she needs to move. To do something other than sit in her cell and wait.

Mr. Hodges isn’t in his cell, but she knows which one it is. The bed is made with precision and his shelves are full of old books. Karen places the borrowed book atop it, so he’ll see it right away. Then she turns on her heel and sees—

A man blocks the doorway. He’s of average height, with dark hair and a graying beard, and he carries himself with a lazy confidence. “Hey, there. You looking for someone?”

“Just returning a book,” says Karen. She has some experience with deflecting attention, and she keeps her voice light and breezy. “Now, I’m meeting someone.”

She steps forward, Lucero at her shoulder, but the man doesn’t move. His eyes are on Karen—not her eyes, of course, but the rest of her. The anger that she’s been feeling boils up, and she isn’t sure what makes her say it. “If I’m the best thing to look at in here, clearly whoever’s sneaking in the porn needs to do a better job.”

There are a few more illicit magazines floating around; she’s seen them furtively passed between some of the men in her unit. She supposes they’re let slip by some of the more lenient guards.

Lucero tenses beside her, but the man laughs. “Got some kind of mouth on you,” he says, but he declines to take the innuendo any further. “You be careful, though. Not everyone around here is as gentlemanly as me.”

“This is gentlemanly?” asks Karen.

“Very,” says the other man. He nods at Lucero. “You might want to do a better job picking your muscle, though. Pretty sure you could bench more than he could.”

Lucero doesn’t say a word. Which, Karen realizes, is so out of character for him that her own nerves begin to fray.

The man isn’t overly large, isn’t overly muscled, isn’t really intimidating at all. But he stands in this unit with all of the calm of a man at the country club. He wears power like a comfortable old garment and all at once, Karen realizes who he must be.

“Mr. Dutton,” she says quietly. “I thought you were in a different cell block.”

“You’d be right,” says the man. He seems pleased with Karen’s deduction. “But I had business here and the guards allow me a certain… leniency.” He gives Karen a nod. “I hear you’ve been returning all of my welcome gifts.”

“I,” says Karen, “was under the impression they weren’t so much gifts as… an investment in future returns.”

Rather than look offended, Dutton’s smile widens. “Beautiful, funny, and smart. You’d be quite the catch anywhere, but here… in a place like this, you are something even more valuable. I offered protection because, yes, I’m a man with needs. I won’t deny it or pretend it’s anything than what it is. A warm cunt’s better than a dry hand.”

Lucero makes a sound low in his throat. Karen keeps her expression blank; it’s nothing worse than she’s heard before.

“But I’m no rapist,” says Dutton. “You don’t want me, I’ll back off.” His smile is knife-sharp. “But the thing is, you may not want me to.”

“Why’s that?” asks Karen quietly. Dutton isn’t at all like she imagined—she always pictured a burly mobster with tattoos and sleeves ripped off at the shoulders. But this slightly paunchy, middle-aged man speaks with a calm that she finds even more unnerving.

“Because once a predator leaves a kill, that’s when the scavengers show up,” says Dutton. “My men have been making sure that the dregs have been leaving you be, but once it becomes common knowledge that I’m no longer interested…” He shrugs.

A thousand emotions roil within her—anger, fear, and even a bit of calculation. She hates that she is even considering this, but she wants to live. She has to survive this place and get out, if she’s ever going to find the people who put her here. If she’s ever going to get justice, she needs allies. And now that she’s seen him, Dutton doesn’t seem like the mobster stereotype. He seems more like the kind of man who’d treat her like he would an expensive car: keeping it in good condition, using it when he wanted, then leaving it somewhere safe when he wasn’t. She would be a nice possession of his, a way to flaunt his power and status. 

The thought makes her stomach churn. She doesn’t want this, doesn’t want him.

“One thing’s wrong with that metaphor, Mr. Dutton,” she says, voice icy. “Scavengers can only take from the dead. And I don’t plan on dying any time soon.”

He chuckles and takes a step back, so the cell entrance is no longer blocked. He sweeps out an arm in a gentlemanly manner, allowing her and Lucero to stride past.

She doesn’t look over her shoulder, not until she’s out of unit five, not until she’s back in her own cell. She sits on her bed, finally allowing herself to feel the fear she’s been tamping down.

It takes a good hour for her heart to stop pounding.

A month passes in relative peace.

Karen works the commissary four days of the week; she helps unload new shipments and tally up inventory. She eats her meals with Lucero, Hodges, and Castle—mostly talking with the first two, with conversations punctuated by occasional grunts from the latter. Not that Castle is unfriendly, just watchful and reserved. She has a feeling he doesn’t talk to anyone. She and Lucero begin a learning how to play poker, courtesy of Hodges. He always wins.

Karen still doesn’t shower. She has devised a routine: she manages to wrangle a bucket from Lucero, who works in custodial. She uses cold water and a washrag to clean herself in the dead of night, when everything is dark and everyone’s doors are locked. It’s a little messy and a little humiliating, but it’s safe. More often than not she slips under her covers, shivering from damp skin and cold air.

One day, a letter arrives from Karen’s father. It’s as stiff as she could have expected—he clearly believes she’s guilty, thinks she must have been having an affair with the man she supposedly stabbed to death. He writes to say that she shouldn’t write again.

She presses a hand to her mouth, trying to quell the childish hurt that makes her feel nineteen again. Nineteen and stupid and hurt in so many ways.

No more gifts arrive from Dutton. And she fears people have begun to notice. There are more whispers in the hallways, more speculative looks. Jackson—that big guy who lives in her unit—has begun smiling at her in a way that makes her shoulders clench up. But still, no one has dared anything more overt. Maybe it’s because no one is quite sure that Dutton has withdrawn his interest entirely, or perhaps because the last men who tried ended up being killed by the Punisher.

There are advantages to having him two doors away, she thinks.

Life goes on—at least until a rolling blackout hits the prison.

It’s around nine at night, after curfew, so everyone’s locked in for the night. She is laying on her bed, staring up at the ceiling. She could read but she doesn’t have the money for a reading light. She’s still saving up for another blanket. She’s doing math in her head, trying to figure out how long getting that blanket will take, when—

All the lights go out.

There are always lights on—dim, emergency lights in the hallway. A bit of light from a high, distant window that overlooks the yard.

But all of those simply vanish.

And then there’s a clicking sound.

Doors being unlocked.

She sits up in bed. That—that can’t be procedure, can it? If doors were unlocked during power outages, it’d be a sure escape plan, or… or maybe the cell block doors are locked manually. Maybe this is so in case of a fire, inmates won’t be individually trapped.

She doesn’t know. She hasn’t lived here long enough to know.

There are noises from the hallway—scattered mens voices and the sound of movement. People have realized what’s happened, and she imagines a zoo with the cages being unlocked. Of predators prodding at loose doors and finding them open.

Not predators, an internal voice whispers to her. Scavengers.

She still has the shiv. She’s been hiding it in her sock like Castle told her to. She would have put it in her cell, but those are searched weekly; strip searches for a female inmate still have to technically be conducted by a female guard… even if the other male guards will show up and watch. Karen had that experience when she was first brought to the prison. But they needed to bus in an outside CO, because there are no women working here.

The weapon is safest on her person.

She digs it out of her sock; it feels awkward in her hand. It looks like some kind of tool that someone sharpened to a point, but it’s better than nothing. She remembers how the flash of metal looked in Castle’s hand—one jab and he managed to cut a man’s throat.

She’s armed. She’s armed, she’s okay, she’s armed, she’s—

The bars rattle. Karen flinches hard, jerking backward. The door is unlocked; there’s no need to shake it like that. It’s like punching the glass at a zoo, trying to get a rise out of the animal inside.

“There she is,” says another inmate. “Awake and everything.”

Karen grips the shiv so hard her knuckles ache. 

The moment the lights go out, Frank sits up.

A power blackout. There’s only been once since he arrived here, and it doesn’t bode well. Darkness has a way of inflaming people, of making them braver and stupider and far more prone to violence. Maybe it’s some primordial instinct—or maybe it’s because assholes tend to come out at night.

The cell doors all click open.

That’s not normal.

Frank’s instincts are going off like a siren, and he’s lived long enough to trust them. He moves toward the open door, peering down the hall. He can barely make out anything—but there is movement. A flicker of something rounding the corner.

Maybe this isn’t a blackout. Maybe it’s an attempt on his life.

He wonders if Dutton finally got fed up with the Punisher’s presence here, if maybe the Irish or the Cartel bribed enough guards to shut down the power.

Frank doesn’t have a weapon but he doesn’t need one. He’s got his cell, which has one entrance, and enough determination to kill anyone who tries to enter. Let them come.

He waits for the sound of footsteps outside of his door, but they never arrive.

Instead, he hears a hiss.

“There she is, awake and everything.”

His heart throbs in his chest—it’s the first true fear he’s felt all night.

No one’s coming for him. They’re here for her.

Frank glances down the hall again and sees the shapes of several men. He takes a step back, considering. He wishes he had something, anything, to fight with. He glances around his cell, trying to think of any improvised weapon—but there isn’t much to work with. It’s just him—whole and ready, fists clenched.

Well. He’s won fights with less.

He steps into the hallway and sees the first of them. Two men slipping into Page’s cell.

It’s all the confirmation he needs.

Dutton stopped sending gifts weeks ago. And maybe this blackout is an accident or maybe someone with enough money paid for it, but either way, the result is the same.

They’re here for Page.

They’re not going to get her.

Frank strides into her cell.

One of them has her pinned against the floor, his knee atop her thigh and his fingers tearing open her jumpsuit. Frank kicks him in the back of the knee, then drives his fist repeatedly into the man’s throat. He chokes, unable to breathe, and falls to the floor. Frank slams his heel into the man’s ribs and hears something snap, then he seizes Page and hauls her upright. For a few heartbeats, she struggles against his grip.

“Hey, hey,” he says, and she stills. Either out of trust or because she’s startled—he doesn’t really care which. It doesn’t matter in this moment.

“Castle?” she breathes, her voice shaking.

“Page,” he says, “where’s the shiv?”

“There,” she says, pointing at the floor. Sure enough, there’s a man with something metal gleaming from between his ribs. He isn’t dead, but he’s bleeding pretty hard. The shiv could be all that’s keeping him from bleeding out, but Frank doesn’t give a damn. He pulls out the shiv and there’s a sickeningly wet sound.

“Attagirl,” he murmurs. “You did good. Now stay with me, okay? Whatever happens, don’t get dragged away. Hold onto me if you have to.”

She nods.

He can hear the others clustering outside of her cell; there are angry shouts, realizations that someone has gotten inside, that blood has been spilled—it’s whipping them into a frenzy. Frank takes a breath, then another, letting his body fall into that battle-ready state. His hearing goes a little quiet, vision sharp and smells intensified. He feels the slight tug against his jumpsuit when Page rests her hand against his back, ready to hold on.

They can’t stay here, not with the bodies and the inmates knowledge that this is her cell. He needs to get her to his, to familiar ground, where he can block the door and let them come at him one at a time.

Another man surges through the door and Frank grabs him by the jumpsuit and slams his head into the wall. Bone crunches and the man goes utterly slack. Frank steps over him, Page at his back.

He can sense movement in the darkness; there is the whisper of air as someone throws a punch at Frank. He blocks it easily and seizes the man’s arm, wrenching it up and out of its socket. The man screams, and Frank is grateful that part of his adrenaline response is that he doesn’t hear sound all that well. He’d be deafened, otherwise.

Then there’s a tugging at his back, and he whirls, sees the outline of someone trying to drag Page away. She’s kicking at the man, gets a lucky hit at his knee, and he steps away, cursing. Frank puts him down with two blows.

But there are more coming. They can’t stay out in the open like this, in a corridor with enemies on both sides. “Come on.” He reaches for her, sweeping out an arm so that he’s between her and the wall. It isn’t much protection, but they need to walk twenty feet. Just twenty feet.

It might as well be twenty miles.

“You brought her to us, good going, Castle,” someone says, and Frank recognizes the voice—it’s Jackson. He’s braver in the dark, with five men at his back. “Good. Dutton said if she doesn’t want his protection, then we can have her.”

Page makes a thin sound behind him—and Frank’s fingers clench hard. The rage rises up in his chest and he welcomes the familiar fire—it’s been so long since he felt this alive, not since that last fight with the Irish, not since he teetered on the knife’s edge of death. He hated the gangs because to them, the loss of a life meant nothing. Gunfire in the park, casualties on the ground—it was just another day to them. He hated them because they took his family and never seemed to care. And maybe he hated them because it was easier to hate them than to hate himself.

One of them lunges and Frank drives the shiv into his stomach. It isn’t the best place to go for, because it takes five to ten real stab wounds to bring a man down. But he can’t risk hitting a rib and the man’s fists are up to protect his face. So Frank stabs him three times in the soft part of his stomach and throws him to the ground. Another man comes up on Frank’s left, reaching for Page, but she punches him in the throat. The man gags, looking more startled than truly hurt. But then Page throws her knee into the man’s groin—and Frank seizes him by the collar and slams his head against the wall.

They manage to get about ten feet up the corridor when Jackson himself finally makes his move.

He’s smarter than the others; he grabs Page, but rather than drag her away from Frank, he throws her into him. Page hits Frank hard and they stumble, off balance. It gives Jackson enough time to strike.

Frank sees the glimmer of something the dark and ducks, barely avoiding a plastic shiv. Jackson was aiming for his eye, but Frank feels the blade cut into his hairline. At once, blood is streaming down his face and into his right eye. Snarling, Frank raises his own shiv. There isn’t time to aim properly, so Frank punches as hard as he can at the center of mass, trying to drive the metal in deep.

Jackson howls with pain, staggering back, the shiv in his shoulder. Frank seizes Page and they half-run, half-stagger toward Frank’s cell.

He gets her in first, and then he yanks the cell door shut behind him. One of the men comes close enough that Frank seizes him by the back of the neck and cracks the man’s face into the bars until he’s unrecognizably bloody and falls to the floor when Frank releases him.

That makes the others pause.

“Grab the sheet from the bed,” snaps Frank. Their hesitation won’t last long and Frank doesn’t have the shiv.

He hears her rustling behind him; another man tries to kick the cell door open and Frank holds it, using his whole body to keep the door closed. Page comes up behind him and Frank takes the sheet. He binds the door to the closest bar, looping the sheet around again and again. It isn’t the best of barriers, but it’ll take time for anyone to cut through that sheet. And Frank can use the time to fight them off. He ties the sheet as hard as he can, then he takes a step back.

He stands there, shoulders squared and face hard. He’s bleeding but he doesn’t give a fuck. He gazes at these men with what Bill once fondly referred to as his “I will strangle you with your intestines” expression. If any of them manage to break through that door, he’ll kill them. He will kill them all.

A glance of his shoulder and he sees that Page is sitting on the floor. Her face is defiant, but her body betrays her fear. She grips the edge of the bed with white-knuckled hands and there’s a taut edge to her shoulders. “Don’t be fucking selfish,” one of the younger men says, leaning against the bars of the cell. “We can share.”

Frank doesn’t answer. These pieces of shit aren’t worth his words.

A few other men call out to Page, offering up promises of gentle care and extra food. When that doesn’t work, the bribes slough away, leaving only ugly threats. Neither changes Frank’s expression or posture. He merely stands there, arms fisted at his sides, ready.

Hours pass—some of the men leave, others take their place. They move through the dark like fish through deep water, slipping in and out of the tides. Frank does not yield. He does not move.

Finally, around four in the morning, a guard shouts for everyone to get back in their cells or risk solitary; they’re working on fixing the blackout, apparently, and everyone’s to stay in their cells until it’s done. Slowly, the other men return to their cells.

Frank finally allows himself a moment to breathe. He steps away from the cell door.

Page looks up at him.

She’s shaking, every breath a shuddering mess. He kneels beside the bed, eyes her. There are scratches at her shoulder. Nail scratches, probably from that man trying to tear her jumpsuit away. Her hands are bruising, the knuckles swollen. And there’s a fucking bite mark on her neck.

He reaches down, fingers hovering over the bite. “You injured anywhere else?”

She hesitates. “Bruises, I think. I haven’t really had time to…” She looks at the door—at the bars of metal. He understands; anyone could look in and see her.

He goes to his small shelf. He always has a few things from the commissary: instant coffee—because it’s better than nothing, a bit of food, and some basic first aid. He pulls out a bottle of water, bandages, cotton balls, and antiseptic ointment. “You should clean those cuts,” he says, setting the supplies on the bed beside her.

He set up a line of string along the wall—most men did, to dry clothes and towels. Now, he adjusts the strung so it hangs across the room, dividing the bed from the other half. He hangs the largest of the towels—and it’s a pitiful attempt at a privacy curtain, but it’s the best he can do. “I’m gonna stand by the door and keep watch,” he says. “You need anything else, you ask. I’ll tell you if anyone’s coming.”

She looks up at him. “Thank you.”

He honestly can’t remember the last time anyone looked at him like that—like it’s good to see him. Like she’s glad he’s there. And fuck—no, he does remember the last time someone gazed at him like that.

It was beside a carousel, music chiming in his ears, grinning at his family before—

He has to look away. He goes to stand by the bars of the door, arms crossed, and listens for the footstep of a guard or fellow inmate. Instead, all he hears is the soft rustle of clothing and the breathing of the woman behind him. About ten minutes passes, and then he hears her say, “What about you?”

He glances over his shoulder. She is standing—and she looks a little better. There are bandages across her collarbone and she used some of the water to scrub her face clean. She gestures at him, and he realizes she is speaking about the cut along his scalp.

Normally, he wouldn’t have given it a second thought. But now, if it gets infected and he has to go to the infirmary, she’ll be alone here. He lets out a breath and reaches for a clean towel. He ends up mostly scrubbing the blood away with some water and disinfecting it as best he can without a mirror. Karen watches him out of the corner of her eye; she never stops looking. Still a little wary.

Of course she is. He’s a fucking murderer. A mass murderer. She’d be stupid not to be at least a little scared of him.

He makes them both cups of coffee by mixing bottled water with the instant stuff. It’s disgusting, but it’s still coffee. He holds out a cup to her.

She doesn’t take it.

“Hey,” he says. “Might as well take it. It’s the coffee you gave me. Technically yours.”

She gives him a flat glance. “It was a gift.”

“And so is this,” he replies.

That seems to reassure her—and it’s the first time he’s seen her accept such a gift in this place. She takes the cup and drinks the tepid, instant coffee.

They sit in silence for a few minutes. “What now?” asks Page.

“We wait, Page,” he says. “Wait for the power to come back on.”

“And after that?”

He shrugs. He has no answers for her.

“Stop doing that,” she says, abruptly.

He glances at her. “What?”

“Calling me Page,” she says. “Everyone here calls me that and I feel like I’m in high school gym again. I hate it.”

“Then what am I supposed to call you?”

“Karen,” she says firmly. “If you save my life twice, you get to call me Karen.”

He smiles, despite the dark and the dried blood beneath his fingernails. There’s something about this moment that feels strangely companionable—of course, it’s the adrenal let-down. He’s done this thing before.

“Then I’m Frank,” he says.

She nods. She has her arms around her knees and she’s shivering. Her own post-panic response, probably. He can see her sliding away, her eyes gone distant. He knows what kinds of dark places a person can withdraw into after fighting for their life, and he doesn’t want that for her.

“Hey,” he says, as gently as he can. “You’re safe here, you got that?”

She looks at him sharply. “You—you can’t promise that. You don’t know… there are things you don’t know.”

He looks at her—all of her. Bruises and scratches, blonde hair askew, her cheeks utterly pale and fingers tight around her own legs.

“Someone wants you dead,” he says. “That’s why you’re here.”

It isn’t a brilliant assumption or a great leap to make—there has never been a woman in this prison. Frank asked a few of the older lifers and they told him as much. As for the reasons the guards gave, well, if there was overpopulation at a women’s facility, then there should be more women here. But there isn’t—it’s just her.

This isn’t imprisonment.

Frank has killed enough to recognize an assassination attempt when he sees it.

She regards him with her brows drawn tight. “You think I could be in on it?” he asks.

She shakes her head. “No—not you. You were… when everything I did went to hell, you were already in prison. You’re one of the few people I know couldn’t be in on it.”

She doesn’t specify what ‘it’ is, though. He doesn’t push her—it’s her secret to keep.

“Who wants you dead?” he asks.

She bites her lower lip.

“I’m not asking out of curiosity,” he says. “I need to know which way the attacks are gonna come. If it’s someone criminal, they’ll probably enlist the inmates. Do something like tonight—try to make it look like a gang rape or something. If it’s someone above board, they might use the guards.”

When she looks at him, her expression is unreadable.

“What?” he says.

“The way you keep talking,” she replies, “it sounds like… I don’t know. You’re going to keep doing this.”


“Keep me alive,” she clarifies.

It suddenly occurs to him that yes, that is exactly what he’s planning. Because the way his mind is running, cataloguing possible attacks and counterattacks, places of safety and locations where they’ll be vulnerable—he’s treating her like she’s a high-risk asset.

Like keeping her alive is a mission.

And fuck, it’s the most himself he’s felt in years.

Maybe it’s because he finally has a mission. He always felt most comfortable in his own skin when his adrenaline was up, his fingers tight on a weapon, his purpose clear. 

Maybe it’s penance.

Or maybe this is his ‘fuck you’ to a universe that seems wholly unconcerned with innocent lives being wiped out at a moment’s notice. 

The reasons don’t really matter; Frank Castle has never been all that interested in philosophy. 

“Yeah,” he says quietly. “That’s exactly what I’m gonna do.” 

Chapter Text

Karen sits on the floor, her hands clasped across her knees.

She isn’t sure what she feels at this moment—numb, mostly. Numb and so detached from the world around her that it is an effort to even blink. Her body is a cumbersome thing, heavy and aching, and she pays little attention to it. She’s just glad that Castle gave her the first aid supplies before the numbness set it, because otherwise she isn’t sure she would have had the energy to take care of herself.

Not Castle, she reminds herself. Frank.


It’s a little strange in how ordinary his name is—and maybe she should be more appalled by the fact that she’s on a first name basis with a mass murderer, but right now… right now she can’t bring herself to care.

Blink, she reminds herself. Breathe.

God, she’s so tired.

She knows that all of her exhaustion isn’t only physical; she has a tendency to react to trauma like this—by numbing out the world until the worst has passed. Maybe it’s not the healthiest way to deal, but it isn’t cocaine or alcohol or any of the other worse coping mechanisms she used when she was younger.

A noise makes her look up. Frank is moving about the small cell, pacing near the door like a caged animal. It should probably scare her—but having him here feels strangely comforting.

It’s probably the trauma, she reminds herself. Being attacked and nearly raped, then saved by him—of course she’s kindly disposed toward him. She’d probably be grateful to anyone who saved her. But… but it’s more than that. She saw the way he looked at her after the attack, how his face tightened with fury when he saw her small injuries. Even when he was bleeding copiously, all of his concern was for her.

The way you keep talking, it sounds like… I don’t know. You’re going to keep doing this.


Keep me alive.

That’s exactly what I’m gonna do.

She still doesn’t know why. She hasn’t quite mustered up the energy to ask.

There are noises coming from the hall. Karen lifts her head, finally manages to say, “What’s happening?”

Frank’s gaze never wavers. He stares down the hall at something she can’t see.

“Guards taking away the bodies,” he says quietly. “They’re talking about who’s responsible. They’re going to have to search the cells—look for weapons.”

“Where’s the shiv?” asks Karen. She didn’t see where it went in all of the chaos.

“In Jackson’s shoulder, last time I looked,” Frank replies.

It’s such a blasé answer that Karen snorts out a laugh.

She can’t remember the last time anyone could startle a laugh from her. And the person who made her laugh is the Punisher—terror of Hell’s Kitchen, killer of killers, and somehow this makes it even funnier. She has to choke back another laugh before it edges into something a little too feverish.

“Thank you,” she says, when she has herself under control.

Frank looked more comfortable surrounded by people who wanted to kill him than he does faced with her gratitude. His eyes drop to the floor before he says, “For?”

“Making me laugh,” she says. She presses her thumb to the corner of her eye, wiping away a bit of moisture. “It’s been a while.”

Rather than reply, he glances out across the hallway again.

“There’ll be an investigation,” he says. “But no one’ll say who killed those men.”

“Snitches get stitches?” she says. “I thought that was just a myth.”

“It is,” he says. “Here, snitches get killed.”

“Good to know.” Her butt is going numb, but she doesn’t want to stand. The cell is small and it’s his. She doesn’t want to encroach on his space.

Her head falls against her knees. Abruptly, all of her exhaustion hits her at once.

“Hey.” His voice is closer, softer, and she looks up. He stands a few paces away, hands awkwardly at his sides. His right index finger twitches, as if he doesn’t realize he’s moving it. “You should—I mean the bed’s more comfortable than the floor.”

She’s so exhausted, it takes a few moments for his meaning to sink in. “I can’t. It’s yours—and you should—”

“I’m not sleeping,” he says curtly. “You should, though. Even if you can’t sleep, just lie down. It’ll help.”

At that, she bites down on the inside of her cheek. She owes him her life, she shouldn’t get offended. But there’s something about being told what will make her feel better that just gets all of her hackles up. Her mouth moves before she can stop it.

“Oh,” she says, “got a lot of experience with being sexually assaulted?”

He blinks. She half-expects him to get angry or to recoil. But instead he just says, “No. But I know what it’s like to think you’re going to die.”

The way he says it, so candidly stops all of her anger in its tracks. He isn’t angry or defensive—he’s just stating a fact.

And abruptly, she remembers that he was a soldier before he was the Punisher.

“You’re coming off an adrenaline high,” he says. “You’re crashing. If this were a normal situation, you could go somewhere familiar. Listen to music or read a book or eat something you like. Ground yourself. But since there isn’t that, you should at least lie down.”

She gazes at him. “Is that what you did?”

He glances back at the hallway, as if he needs something else to look at. “I’d play guitar. Or read. Or look at the pictures my kids drew for me.”

His kids. The answer is so startling that she says, without thinking, “What kind of drawings?”

For a moment, she isn’t sure he’ll answer. But then he says, “Dinosaurs, mostly. But trucks were a close second. Sometimes they drew dinosaur-trucks.”

She smiles a little. She imagines two little kids scrawling on papers that would be sent overseas to their dad. The normality of it is almost intoxicating.

He has no pictures up, though. Technically, decorations aren’t allowed even though it’s a soft rule and most people break it. She wonders if perhaps the kids’ mom, wherever she is, is keeping those pictures for when Frank gets out.

If he gets out.

She places her hand on the wall and stands. Her legs are a bit wobbly and his gaze goes sharply to her. He looks ready to move if she falls. But despite her numb legs, Karen manages to walk to the bunk. She sits on the edge, glances down. The bed is made with… well, military precision. She can see one of his dark hairs on the pillow.

There’s an intimacy to sleeping in another person’s bed, whether they’re in it or not.

Just as she’s about to settle onto her back, footsteps ring out.

Karen straightens, her heart pounding hard. A CO—she isn’t sure of his name—walks by, then pauses. He has light brown hair and a round, freckled face. He looks like someone’s kid brother. He glances inside the cell and Karen knows what he sees: Frank Castle standing there, and the prison’s only female occupant on the bed behind him.

The guard laughs. “You know,” he says, “we’re supposed to break up this sort of thing. But—but I know someone who’ll get such a laugh out of this, it won’t matter.” He nods to Frank. “Enjoy yourself.”

Frank’s fists clench. He looks like he wants to drive his knuckles through that man’s face for the implication.

But of course that’s what everyone will think. That the Punisher, terror of Hell’s Kitchen, decided he wanted a bedwarmer and claimed the only woman for himself.

The CO walks back down the hallway, leaving Frank and Karen as alone as they can be—surrounded by other occupied cells.

Frank’s hands have not unclenched.

“It’s okay,” Karen says quietly.

Frank glances over his shoulder at her; anger shines in his eyes, but she knows it isn’t directed at her. “It isn’t okay. Someone—someone out there will think it’s a laugh that the Punisher kidnapped you, dragged you into his cell and—”

“Better you than anyone else,” she says.

“Who the fuck would get a laugh out of that?” he says flatly. “Doesn’t matter if it’s true or not—point is, someone’ll think it’s true. Someone doesn’t just want you dead, they want you…”

“Hurt,” says Karen. Because she’s had some time to think about this. “Yeah, I know.”

He takes a step toward her. “Who?”

“I don’t know who it is,” Karen says wearily. “But I have a general idea of why they want me dead. I’ll—I’ll tell you. Just not tonight. Or… is it morning yet? Christ, I don’t even know what time it is anymore.”

Frank looks as though he wants more information, but he nods. “All right. You—get some rest while you can, okay? I’ll keep watch.”

A few months ago, the idea of sleeping in a strange man’s bed while he keeps watch might have been off-putting. But now, it’s a comfort.

“Goodnight, Frank,” she says quietly, and rolls over onto the bed. She doesn’t get beneath the covers, but she doesn’t have to.

She’s asleep within a few minutes of closing her eyes.

She wakens to the sound of a clatter.

There is a disconcerting moment when Karen isn’t sure where she is; she looks around, sees that everything in the cell is backwards, then realizes it isn’t her cell.

She’s in Frank’s. And she’s safe. She’s safe.

Or as safe as she’ll ever be in here.

Frank sits on the floor a few feet away. There’s a book in his hand and the lights are on. It’s morning, but she doesn’t know the time.

“Hey,” he says, glancing up over the pages. “You get some sleep?”

She rubs a hand across her eyes. “You couldn’t tell?”

“You were very still and very quiet,” he says. “I didn’t know if you were awake or not.”

“I’ve always slept like that,” Karen says. She stretches her arms to the ceiling, and there’s a satisfying crack between her shoulder blades. “I had a boyfriend once who’d get jumpy about it. He said he couldn’t tell if I was breathing and it freaked him out. Once I woke up to him just hovering over me, trying to see if I was alive or not.”

He exhales hard and it takes a few seconds for her to realize that’s an amused sound from him.

“What’s going on?” she asks, nodding at the hallway.

The mirth drains from his face in an instant. “They cleaned up the bodies. Took anyone who had major injuries to the infirmary. They’re calling it an ‘incident’ because words like ‘riot’ get insurance companies to panic. Your name is being kept out of it—I heard the guards say something about liability. And now they’re keeping everyone in our unit locked in their cells. They’re delivering meals to us.”

“That can’t be sustainable,” Karen says.

Frank nods. “You’re right. They’ll probably just keep our unit on lockdown for maybe twenty-four hours at most—until they can finish conducting an investigation.”

Karen lets out a breath. She already feels entrapped here; being locked in a cell with no way out is just another way her world has shrunk. And there’s another thing—a rather important, rather embarrassing little thing. Maybe she can put it off as long as possible. She watches as the cart wheels up—it’s two inmates who are delivering the food. A CO unlocks the door and the inmate passes in a tray.

“There’s two of us in here,” says Frank, but the CO snorts.

“Not according to official records there ain’t,” he says, with a small smile. He pulls the door shut with a snap, and the lock slides back into place. The cart moves on.

Frank brings the tray over the bed, setting it down. Karen glances at it—a sludgy liquid that is probably oatmeal, a biscuit, canned peaches, and that heaping lump of margarine. There’s a cup of coffee, too.

Absolutely none of it looks appetizing to Karen. She should eat; she’s lost weight since she was first arrested. She knows her cheeks have hollowed out and her ribs are a little too sharp—but between her stress and the lack of good food, she has little desire to partake. 

“You can have it,” she says.

Frank looks at her. There’s something on his face she can’t quite identify. He rises from the bed, goes to his shelves and begins rummaging through one of the small plastic containers. Then he pulls something out. 

It’s a granola bar. One of the cheap kind—with chocolate chips and oatmeal and… and it looks far better than anything she’s eaten in months.

“I always keep some food on hand for emergencies,” he says, when she glances up at him. “You should, too.”

She takes the granola bar. It feels like the most precious gift she’s ever received—and that in itself makes her throat close up. It’s a simple granola bar. But the thought of having something to eat besides the stale biscuit, maybe-oatmeal and canned fruit is a welcome one.

She unwraps the bar and takes a small bite. Sweetness floods her mouth. It’s been months since she ate something simply for the pleasure of eating it, rather than choking something down for sheer sustenance. “I don’t have any money in my account,” she says, after that first bite. “I—I didn’t have much to start with, and… well, being convicted of murder is surprisingly expensive.”

He looks at her sharply. “That’s why you’re here?”

She might as well tell him. If he’s going to… if he’s going to try and keep her safe, like he said, then he should know exactly what he’s getting into.

She eats another bite, trying to sort out her own thoughts. The story has been told and retold so many times it feels like it’s been carved into her bones.

“Whatever you say isn’t gonna change anything,” Frank says.

She looks at him, uncomprehending. “What?”

He shifts a little on the bed, as if trying to figure out his own reply. “I kill killers,” he says. “Criminals—so you’re hesitating right now, isn’t it? You think if you tell me, it’ll change things. It won’t. I only hurt people who deserve it.”

She looks down at her cup of coffee. “How do you know I don’t deserve it?”

He makes a skeptical sound. “It was self-defense, wasn’t it? That’s what landed you in here. Someone was trying to hurt you—and you hurt them back. Some kind of lawyer bullshit got involved. Maybe the person was connected, had a relative with money. Maybe they wanted you humiliated and dead, so they paid someone off to have you transferred here.”

The way he says it, like it’s obvious, has her throat aching.  

She takes another bite of the granola bar, so she can pull together her story. “I was new to New York. I had a job working in the offices of Union Allied Construction. I was a secretary for their chief accountant and I… I opened a file I wasn’t supposed to. It was called a pension fund… but it wasn’t. The numbers were too high. They’re doing a lot of reconstruction, they have government contracts and—and it was obvious that the money was going places it shouldn’t. I made the mistake of telling my boss I’d seen it and he just said it was some theoretical thing they were playing around with. But it wasn’t.” She takes a breath. “There was a man working in legal. His name was Daniel Fisher. He was nice—he was one of the few people not to treat me like I was disposable. People do that with secretaries, sometimes. But he was—he was nice. And I thought since he was a lawyer, he’d know what to do. I asked him to get a drink after work and…”

Frank leans forward. His voice is surprisingly gentle. “What happened?”

She looks at her hands. “I had one drink. It must have been spiked because things got fuzzy after that. I remember passing out and waking up in my own apartment. Daniel Fisher was beside me, stabbed to death. There was a knife in my hand and I was covered in blood.” She lets out a small sound of pain. The memory still hurts; every time she remembers, it hurts. The panic, the realization, the slow creeping dread. His family will never see him again, and it's her fault. She may not have killed him, but she brought Daniel into this. 

“Hey,” Frank says, voice even softer. “Hey.”

Her hands are shaking. She tightens her fingers around the granola bar.

“I didn’t do it,” she says. “I swear, I wouldn’t have killed him. The lawyers who went after me tried to make it look like we’d been having an affair or something, but it wasn’t like that. He had a wife—a little boy. He was a good person and I swear, I swear, if I’d known what Union Allied was going to do, I’d never have brought him into it."

And Frank says the one thing that no one else has. “I believe you.”

The day passes slowly. Frank straightens the things in his cell, readying it for the inevitable inspection. He ends up eating most of the breakfast, although he insists that Karen eat the peaches. (“Vitamin c,” he said.)

Karen feels strangely hollow, lighter after her confession about Daniel Fisher’s death. She wasn’t sure what to expect after telling him, but Frank’s attitude toward her hasn’t changed one bit. He’s still slightly aloof, but not unkind. He goes to his shelf and retrieves the only book—an Isabel Allende that Karen hasn’t read. While he cleans his cell, she finds herself sitting on the floor, the paperback in her hands. She isn’t sure she can muster the energy to read, but then her eyes find the first line and she’s engrossed in the pages… at least until a problem becomes slowly more urgent.

Around one in the afternoon, Karen shuts the book and lets out a breath.

“Frank?” she says. She’s still getting used to saying his name aloud.

He looks over; he’s in the process of making his bed. “What is it?”

Karen rises to her feet a little stiffly. She sets the book on the shelf and wraps her arms around herself.

Okay. She can do this.

“I,” she begins to say, then takes another breath. “I need to use the toilet.”

There is one toilet. It’s out in the open, like every other toilet in the cells. In her own room, Karen draped a towel so that it made a little privacy curtain. Frank must understand her hesitancy, because he reaches for the spare sheet beneath his bed. It takes a bit of effort to hang it, but at least the view is blocked from the hallway. Still… anyone in the cell will still be treated to a perfect view of her.

Frank seems to realize this at the same moment she does.

There is a bit of awkward silence.

He turns on his heel, so he faces the wall.

Karen lets out a breath, unbuttons her jumpsuit and sits on the toilet. At least knowing Frank, it’s probably scrupulously clean. She sits there, waiting, but—her bladder won’t relax. She isn’t sure if it’s Frank four feet away, the knowledge that there are guards moving up and down the hallway or the remembered fear of last night. But she simply cannot pee.

“Uh,” says Frank, still keeping his back to her. “Everything okay?”

“Yes,” says Karen defensively.

But still—nothing.

She thinks of waterfalls and showers. Of rainstorms. Of—

“I can’t do it,” she finally says. “Not with you standing there listening.”

She hates this the most. The lack of privacy is utterly appalling at times, but now it feels unbearable. She cannot even use the toilet in peace.

Frank considers for a moment, then he shoves his fingers in his ears and starts humming. It’s off key and loud—which is the point. Anyone who walks by won’t hear the telltale sound of someone pissing; he won’t even hear it, from just a few feet away.

She closes her eyes. Breathes.

He’s married. He has kids. He’s probably been in the same bathroom as his wife when she used the toilet. This isn’t a big deal.

It still takes a few moments, but the tension in her belly slowly relaxes to the point where she can finally let go. When she’s finished, she flushes, washes her hands, then goes to tap him on the shoulder.

“Was that Bruce Springsteen?” she asks.

He shrugs. “First thing that came to mind.” He nods at the toilet. “Everything work out?”

“Yes, thank you,” she says, a little dryly. If someone told her yesterday that today she’d be peeing while Frank Castle hummed “No Surrender,” she would have laughed in their face.

He goes to sit on the made bed. “Do you normally have a private bathroom? Shower?”

She looks at him. Surely he knows—but then again, it seems he doesn’t. “I’m in general population,” she says. “That means general population showers and bathrooms.”

His expression creased with bafflement. “They can’t—fuck. I’ve never seen you in the showers.”

“Because I haven’t showered since I arrived,” says Karen. She shrugs. “I’ve gotten pretty good at managing with a bucket and washcloth in my own cell.”

A flash of anger crosses his face. “Those assholes. I thought—this whole time—you must have been…”

“It’s not a big deal,” she says. “Do I miss showers? Hell, yes. But am I going to risk showering in front of thirty or so other guys? No.”

His jaw works; he looks as though he wants to say something but he bites the words back.

The day continues on. Karen reads quietly on the bed while Frank works out. He does pushups, sit-ups, planks, and an array of exercises she doesn’t even have names for. She watches a little over the top of the paperback. There’s a grace to his movements, a contained power. She’s seen him fight, but this is more leisurely. For pleasure, rather than survival. Maybe she should start working out. It’d be something to do.

Around five, that CO finally shows up to search their cell.

It’s the same one who laughed when he saw Karen in there. When he unlocks the door, he does so with a grin. “You two look cozy,” he remarks. Karen rises from the bed, the book in hand. She hastily sets it on the shelf before the CO gestures both of them out of the cell.

The search is little more than tossing the place. The CO pulls the mattress from the bunk, looks under it, then begins casually throwing Frank’s things about: the book is on the floor, along with his family picture, his spare jumpsuit, the towels, his toiletries, the commissary food, and a few spare rolls of toilet paper. Frank and Karen stand in the hallway, and now she sees the bloodstains on the floor.

There are a few inmates scrubbing the place clean with mops and a few rags. They should be wearing gloves—it’s a biohazard, after all. But whoever equipped these inmates didn’t seem to care. One of the inmates sees Karen and gives a low whistle of surprise. Another inmate stops mopping and gazes over. He leans on his mop, getting a good look at her. They’re from a different cell block, Karen realizes. Probably brought in just for cleaning duties, since everyone in this unit’s been locked away.

Karen meets their eyes and doesn’t look away.

The CO steps out. He looks irritated that he hasn’t found anything incriminating. His gaze slides over Frank and Karen, and then he moves closer.

The man brushes Karen’s hair back away from her neck. “You like it rough?” he says in an undertone that makes Karen’s blood run hot. The bite mark—he’s looking at the bite mark and must think that it was Frank who—

She bites hard on her lip. Hard enough that the pain can focus her, drawing her attention to the sensation rather than her own thoughts. She wants to snarl, to tell this man what really happened, but it wouldn’t do any good. She has to stay quiet and hope that her complacency will pay off when her lawyer tries to have her transferred.

“Well,” says the CO softly. “If that’s how you like it, I’ll get the paperwork in. Looks like the Punisher finally has a roommate. We can give your cell to someone else,” he says to Karen.

Disbelief makes her voice shake. “What—you can’t. There’s—there’s only one bed—”

The CO’s grin widens. She can almost see the thoughts playing out behind his eyes—and it’s a little sickening. He’s getting off on the idea of Frank manhandling her, maybe even forcing her. She has no doubt that he’s being paid off by Union Allied but that was probably only a perk. He would let her stay with Frank whether or not he was getting paid because he’s a son of a bitch. Karen forces her breathing to remain steady.

She waits for Frank to protest, but he doesn’t say a word.

The CO steps back, gestures at the cell’s open door. “I’ll just make a note in your chart,” he says. Karen hesitates then walks in, Frank at her back. She turns just in time to see the door slide shut. Footsteps ring out and then the CO is searching the next cell over.

For a few seconds, Karen can only breathe. Words seem too far out of reach.

She’s—she’s here permanently. Not for a night or a day or even a week. She’s rooming in a single cell with Frank Castle because Union Allied thinks that he’s going to hurt her—probably kill her.

“Hey,” says Frank, in a voice so quiet that no one else will hear. “You’re okay.”

“Why didn’t you say anything?” she hisses. It isn’t Frank she’s angry at, but somehow it’s easier to be angry with him than anyone else. “You could have argued.”

He scoffs. “Like they’d have listened to me? And besides, this is safer.”

“Safer?” she says, incredulous.

“So long as you’re rooming with me, no one else will touch you,” he says. A shadow crosses his face. “Half of them won’t try because they’ll think…”

“That I’m property of the Punisher,” Karen says flatly.

He looks less than pleased but he nods. “Yeah. And the other half that would try—well, they won’t get the chance.”

She paces, feeling so trapped that her skin itches with it. She wants to throw herself against the bars, to beat them bloody with her fists until they’re broken—or maybe until she is. She hates feeling like this, caught like a rabbit in a snare.

“Listen,” says Frank. “You’ll have the bed.”

“That’s not the problem.” Karen presses her hands to her forehead, trying to calm herself down.

“Then what’s wrong?” He doesn’t sound angry or impatient—just calm. It’s that calm that feels so infuriating to her. He should be angry—she’s invading his space. She’s sleeping on his bed, eating his stores of food.

It feels like one step too far.

“I can’t,” she says.

“Why not?”

“I’m in your space,” she says, gesturing around the cell. “You—you saved my life. Twice. You’ve literally bled for me, and now this? I can’t—”

She doesn’t know quite how to finish.

She owes him so much; the scales can’t tip any further without shattering completely. She doesn’t want to owe him—she doesn’t want to owe anyone.

“What are you getting out of this?” she finally says. “If you’re not looking for sex—which I know you’re not—then what are you getting out of helping me?”

Frank’s brows draw so tight it looks like a permanent line has been carved into his forehead. He seems to consider for a few moments, then he says, “I did a few tours in Afghanistan. Most of the time—most of it’s boring. That’s what they don’t tell you about serving. We’d go whole months without any combat. But then—then it came at us fast. When shit went bad, it always happened one thing after another. There were a few weeks it was all bombings—and fuck, it was bad. We saw whole civilian neighborhoods get wrecked and it was all any of us could do to get the survivors out alive.”

She has no idea what this has to do with her, but Karen listens.

“So one of the men in my unit,” continues Frank, “was helping evacuate this neighborhood. Saw a dog—skinny little thing. She’d had pups recently, but no one knew what had happened to them. Her owners were either dead or left her behind. So this man saw the dog and tried to get her to come with him. She wouldn’t, but he left food for her. Several of the other guys said it was waste, but the man kept going back. In between shifts, when he had a little time to himself, he’d try to coax the dog into coming closer. It helped take his mind off of things, gave him a purpose.

“Took about two weeks,” he says, “but eventually she trusted him enough so he could get her to a shelter. He brought her there and she was taken in. Never found out what happened to her after that. But the point is—when everything’s gone to shit, you find meaning where you can.” He exhales hard through his nose.

There’s a moment of silence and then Karen says, “Did you just compare me to a starving dog?”

He glances at her sharply, but she’s smiling. It feels nice to smile.

“That’s not what I—” He begins to say, but she waves him off.

“I get it,” she says. “No, really, I do.”

And she does understand.

Because there is no doubt in her mind that he was the one who saved that dog.

Chapter Text

It has been well over a year since Frank slept in the same room with another person. The last time—the last time was Maria. That single night they shared before she was ripped from him. He remembers the night in flashes: the release of the tight laces on his boots, the shedding of his stale clothes that still smelled of the plane home, the tugging of Lisa’s fingers on his sleeve and his kiss against her hair—tomorrow, sweetheart—and then stumbling into the master bedroom with bleary gratitude. He remembers the touch of sheets against his bare skin, the way the covers seemed to swallow him up. Maria kissed him and his fingers skimmed along her arm, up to her shoulder, into the silken fall of her hair. You get some rest, okay? She whispered against his mouth. It’s so good to have you home.

Now he falls asleep on a bed of folded towels, the extra sheet, with his wadded-up jumpsuit shirt for a pillow.

He can’t hear Karen breathing; she really is the quietest of sleepers. He knows he can snore sometimes and hopes he won’t wake her in the night.

All of these little things he forgot—the little details of sharing space with another.

Karen must be thinking along the same lines; he could see how unnerved she was by the thought of staying here with him. He doesn’t blame her for it. She barely knows him; of course she’s uncomfortable with it. He’s a cold-blooded killer; she isn’t.

He remembers how her face crumpled when she spoke the name of her coworker, how her fingers kept rubbing against her pants as if trying to wipe away a memory.

Blood, if he’s not mistaken.

He knows what it feels like to be covered in it.

His life has been carved down to a simple truth: he failed. He failed the people who needed him most, the people he swore to keep safe at all costs. He belongs in here. If he’d been faster, more aware, he might have saved his family. That thought used to be his fuel, his fire, what kept him breathing and alive when—against all odds—he should have perished. Those fires were doused when he was taken into custody, when he was cuffed and put behind bars, because he knew he couldn’t do any more. The Punisher was finished; all that was left was to rot in this prison.

But Karen—Karen doesn’t deserve this place.

Even if she has hurt another to protect family—as she insinuated during her conversation a few weeks ago—well, at least she protected them. It’s more than he managed.

She has family. She has a life, even if it was wrenched away from her. She has friends, probably has a boyfriend out there waiting for her. And someone wants her dead because she opened the wrong file.

It’s fucked up.

And Frank isn’t going to just stand by and let it happen. Not if he can do something about it.

Those sleeping coals in his chest are coming back to life, embers hot beneath his ribs. 

They’re let out of their cells in the morning.

He hears the telltale click of the automatic locks sliding open, then a rise in voices. Frank is alert at once, rising from his bed on the floor. His fingers curl into loose fists; it doesn’t matter if tempers have had time to calm over the last day—he’s still wary. Karen sits up on the bed, her face a little pale. She must be thinking the same thing he is: that all of the men that attacked her are free to move about the cell block again.

Well, not all of them.

He put some of them in the infirmary—and probably a few in the morgue.

“Hey,” he says. Karen looks at him. She’s got a pretty good poker face, he’ll give her that. Her expression is set in stone—but he can see unease lurking at the back of her eyes. “Come on. We can let Lucero know we’re still alive.”

Her posture loosens a fraction. “Shit,” she says. “Hodges—Lucero. They’re probably worried out of their minds.”

“Lucero, probably,” replies Frank. “Hodges is more likely setting up a betting pools.”

She snorts. “For what? Cigarettes?”

“Stamps,” he answers. “More valuable.”

She exhales a little laugh. “Hadn’t thought of that.”

She doesn’t know about the stamps. She should, after two months here. Which means—she hasn’t needed them.

She hasn’t written to anyone.

He tucks that thought away for further examination, but now, he has other concerns. “Come on,” he says again. “Let’s get some breakfast.”

Frank steps outside first. A glance up and down the corridor, a survey of the landscape.

All of the blood has been scrubbed away. There are a few people milling about, and several of them sneak looks at Frank. He doesn’t recognize any faces as those who fought him, but then again, he isn’t sure he would remember individuals. At least, none other than Jackson. He’s still probably in the infirmary—small mercies.

Karen walks out. Her arms are tightly crossed but her mouth is tight with defiance. “Can we check my cell first?” she asks quietly. “I have some things in there I’d like to grab. Toothbrush, extra pillows, you know.”

He nods.

She walks quickly to the cell two doors down, then steps inside. He hears her intake of breath before he sees it. The cell bears the aftermath of the attack: mattress on the floor, her few possessions scattered about. To her credit, Karen doesn’t hesitate. She kneels and begins scooping up what’s left—her pillow, an extra jumpsuit, a bucket—that must be what she’s been washing with, he realizes—and then she just picks up the flimsy mattress, too.

“What are you doing?” he asks.

“Just because you’re on the floor doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a mattress,” she says.

“Pretty sure mattress stealing isn’t allowed,” he says, but he’s amused.

“Pretty sure putting the only female inmate in a single cell with a male inmate isn’t either,” she replies tartly. “I’d like to see them write this up.” And without another word, she marches back towards his cell.

Their cell.

She leaves the extra mattress atop the bed and shoves her things into the bucket. “You can take some of the shelves,” he tells her. “It’s not like I need them all.”

She nods, then straightens. “Breakfast?”

“Breakfast,” he agrees.

There are eyes on them all the way to the mess hall. Frank can feel them like a physical presence—hundreds of gazes. Gossip burns through this place like viruses; half of the inmates will know that Castle killed more men in an altercation over the prison’s only female inmate. They’ll also know about Karen’s change in address—and he doubts they’re going to attribute it to a corrupt CO. They’re going to think it’s because he’s the Punisher. Frank has done little to fuel the mythos that surrounds him; the rumors and the bodies are enough.

Breakfast this morning consists of yellow patties that are probably supposed to be omelets, tiny sausages, and baked beans. It’s not the worst of meals. They get their trays, along with cups of coffee, and walk toward their usual table. Hodges hasn’t arrived yet, but Lucero is there—his jaw hanging wide. He lets loose a string of curses, half in Spanish and half in English, when he sees them both up close. “You look like shit,” he says, when Frank sits down.

Frank rubs a hand across his healing scalp wound. 

“Other guys look worse,” he says, using the edge of his spork to cut into the omelet.

Lucero curses again. “How many?”

“Not sure,” Frank replies. “It was dark.”

Lucero glances between Karen and Frank. “He’s been getting in fights since he first got here,” he tells her, like this is some kind of secret. “Not that I’m complaining, since he’s done me a solid once or twice. Kept my old bunkmate from getting a little too friendly.”

It’s a valiant attempt to remind Karen that she isn’t the only one who’s been attacked in such a way—but Frank isn’t sure if that’s the best way to go about comforting her.

To Frank’s relief, Karen smiles faintly. “He’s good for that,” she says quietly, with a small look at Frank. She returns her attention to her breakfast. She’s eating—which is probably a good sign. The sausages taste like grease and sharp pepper, but they’re not half bad.

“So they’re really letting you stay together?” asks Lucero, frowning. “Or is that all bullshit? Because if Olson was lying—”

“It’s true,” says Frank. Might as well get this topic out of the way first. He’s thought a little about how to explain it without revealing too much of Karen’s past. “Some asshole CO is getting off on it. He’ll probably mess with the paperwork, try to make it seem legit.”

Lucero’s expression darkens. “Bastards. All of them.” His spork moves through the air as he gestures between the two of them. Frank can see the unstated question hanging there, as if Lucero doesn’t dare utter it.

“I’m sleeping on the floor,” says Frank.

“At least you have a mattress now,” says Karen, with a certain amount of dignity. It almost makes him smile.

Lucero’s gaze travels between them both again. “So you’re just gonna keep… bunking together?” There’s a certain amount of wariness in his voice, no matter how much he tries to hide it.

And hell, Frank gets it. Lucero’s a good kid. He likes Karen—and he thinks if Frank were forcing Karen to do anything she didn’t want, Lucero would try to get involved. He knows that Frank could snap his neck without much effort, but still, he’d get involved. 

Good kid.

“It’s probably safest for now,” Karen says, before Frank can reply. “I don’t want to go against any of the COs, and… well.” Her attention expands out from their small table, her eyes flickering out across the mess hall. “Maybe it’ll forestall any other…” She goes quiet and returns to eating her sausages.

“Fuckers,” Lucero says with feeling. “Well, I’m glad you’re both okay. There were some pretty wild rumors coming out of your cell block. Like the Punisher killed everyone after Jackson pissed him off. Or—”

“Jackson,” says Frank, before Lucero’s tangent can build up much steam, “is he still alive?”

Lucero nods. “Alive and complaining, if what I hear is true. You should’ve just killed him, man. He’s going to be trouble.”

“I had other concerns at the moment,” says Frank. Another glance at Karen; she has finished on her sausages and beans and is eyeing her disc-like omelet with a doubtful expression. She pokes it with her spork. Without a word, Frank spears his last sausage and transfers it to her tray. She needs it more than he does. She blinks in surprise but Lucero is talking again before she can say a word.

“Well, watch your back,” says Lucero. “If Jackson goes to Dutton to ask for help…”

Karen goes still. “He’s with Dutton?”

“Occasional contractor,” says Lucero. “He’s not one of the regulars.”

Karen snorts. “Contractor. It sounds so… official.”

“It basically means he sometimes runs errands in our cell block, because Dutton isn’t technically allowed there,” says Lucero. “But he hasn’t been important enough to take on full time.” He swallows a bite of beans. “He could still make trouble for you, though. Especially if Dutton… uh. Thinks you—might have… infringed.” He is trying very hard not to look at Karen, but his meaning is clear. If Dutton thinks that Frank poached Karen, then there could be trouble.

“I think my answer to Dutton was clear enough,” says Karen, her mouth a little tight. She takes a bite of the last sausage with perhaps more force than necessary.

“Well, be careful,” says Lucero. “Both of you.”

And then Hodges shows up, sniffling a little and complaining about the colder mornings, and the entire account has to be repeated a second time.

Karen goes to work at the commissary after breakfast. Frank walks her there—which seems to both irritate and amuse her. But tempers are still running high and he’s not taking chances. “Some of those men had friends,” he says. “They’ll be angry. It’ll take some time for tempers to cool.”

Karen lets out a breath. “Yeah. I get that. It’s just… I hate that I need an escort.”

She’s independent, fiercely so. He’s known that since she turned down Dutton’s gifts those first few weeks. It’s an admirable quality out there in the real world, but in here, it could get her killed. “I’ve got to head to the laundry rooms, anyways,” he says. “It’s on the way.”

“Laundry?” She tilts her head back half an inch in surprise. “They’ve got you on laundry duty?”

“Didn’t want to give me anything too dangerous,” he says. “They probably figure I can’t kill someone with a mesh bag full of underwear.”

She laughs, presses a hand to her mouth. 

When they arrive at the commissary, she says, “I’ll see you back at the cell, okay?”

He nods, then continues on down the hallway, leaving her behind.

It’s a relief to be on his own for a few minutes. It isn’t that she’s bad company, but Frank hasn’t really been close to anyone in a year. He’s been left on his own with only Lucero and visits from Curtis to draw him out of his solitude. This change is… well, he wouldn’t call it unwelcome but it’s going to take some getting used to. He strides into the laundry room, greeted by the familiar smells of detergent and bleach.

It’s boring work, mostly checking the knots on the laundry bags and tossing them into the machines. It gives him plenty of time to think.

Karen is in here because someone framed her. Her employer, most likely. They were willing to kill an innocent man—a father and husband—to discredit her. Which begs the question, why didn’t they just kill her? It would’ve been simpler than arranging an elaborate frame-up. Maybe Union Allied wasn’t sure how much Karen had told her coworker. Maybe they thought it was safer to kill her accomplice and make her death in prison look accidental.

And now they think that Frank will probably end up being her executioner.

It isn’t an unfounded hypothesis—Frank knows the statistics on mass shooters. Most of them have a history of domestic violence, so it isn’t too great of a leap for them to think that Frank might hurt a woman. His fingers slip on the knot of a laundry bag; it takes two tries to tie it shut.

When he was stupid and young, when he was brimming with unspent anger at the world, he picked fights with people who could fight back. Other angry young men, a few local gangs, once an older man he found beating a dog. When he was in training, he channeled that anger into fellow recruits. And there were some bar fights with drunk assholes who thought it was fun to grab their server’s ass when she walked by. 

But even when he was at his wildest, he never, ever touched someone who couldn’t defend themselves. Not the women he dated, nor animals, nor children.

As for Maria—

He would have gladly eaten his own gun rather than lay a hand on her.  

If Union Allied had done their research, they’d know that. But at least this works out in his and Karen’s favor. They’ll leave her to him, thinking that Frank could be the most terrifying punishment she could endure. That CO is in on it—that much is obvious. He might have even been the one to orchestrate the blackout and the cells being unlocked. Frank isn’t sure who else could be in on it. Probably someone in administration. As for inmates, there could be a few on the payroll.

Frank would bet half his commissary account that Dutton isn’t in on it. Frank knows Dutton’s type: he’s a kingpin and kings bow to no one. He wouldn’t take anyone’s orders. Which doesn’t make him a good person or any less of a criminal, but at least Frank is pretty sure that Dutton won’t be ordering any hits on Karen.

Small comforts, Frank thinks, and shoves another laundry bag into the washer.

Living with another person is an adjustment for both of them.

Frank reorganizes his cell—it isn’t much work, considering his possessions are few. He gives Karen two shelves for her things and then they figure out the sleeping situation. He sets up the extra mattress on the floor near the wall, so if Karen needs to use the toilet at night, she won’t accidentally trip over him. They use his laundry line and a towel as a makeshift privacy curtain when one of them changes clothes.

He learns a few things about her: in addition to sleeping like the dead, she also tends to run cold. She curls into a ball on the mattress, beneath her thin blanket and Frank realizes that they’re going to have to do something about this before winter really sets in. She also likes to brush her hair out in the mornings, tying it back before she picks up her toothbrush. She doesn’t talk much, at least not until she’s had coffee. She does enjoy reading, and she blazes through his one and only novel in a matter of hours rather than days. She borrows more books from Hodges and shares them with Frank. And she bathes every few days when he goes to the shower, using her bucket, a rag and cold water. It can’t be comfortable; when he returns, he finds her shivering and damp.

On their seventh day of living together, Frank decides that needs to stop. 

“Come on,” he says. “We’re going to shower.”

She freezes.

He supposes he could have said that a little more diplomatically.

“It’s lunchtime. There won’t be many people in the showers. If you want to shower, you’re going to,” he says. “And if anyone tries to touch you, I’ll break their fingers.”

At that, her stillness collapses into a reluctant laugh. “Why are you bringing this up now?” she asks.

“You can’t keep this up,” he says, as carefully as he can. “I get that you’re not comfortable showering with the other guys, but winters are cold here. You could end up getting hypothermic if you try to use cold water and can’t dry yourself quickly enough.” He considers. “Is it because you don’t want people to see you?”

“Well, I’m not thrilled about a bunch of men trying to memorize what I look like so they can jerk off later,” she says. “But, no, it wasn’t about that. I’m less afraid of the nudity than of what might happen.”

“Nothing is going to happen.” He utters each word like a promise. He meets her gaze and holds it. “Hey. Nothing will happen. You got that?”

Her face is still, but he can see the unease behind her expression.

Even so, she gives him a slow nod. “Okay,” she says softly. “You want to—now?”

“Lunchtime,” he says. “Fewer people. So yeah, now is best.” He takes his dry towel from its line. Karen retrieves hers from the shelf. Her fingers are unsteady, but she follows him into the hallway.

The showers are at the end of their cell block. It reminds Frank a little of college: there are cubbies to stash one’s clothes before walking into the communal showers. Everything is white tile—some of which are cracked, others dark with mold—and the smell of industrial strength soap. It’s always damp. As he hoped, the area near the cubbies is empty.

They’ll need to undress first here, so their clothes don’t get wet. Frank takes a breath, then begins unbuttoning his jumpsuit.

He knows what he looks like—he’s all scars and sharp edges, with enough muscle to make most guys think twice about challenging him. If anything, he bulked up a little during his first year in here—it’s not like there’s anything else to do in his leisure time but read and work out. He has few issues with nudity; he’s showered with enough guys that he doesn’t really give a damn.

He folds his clothing and slides it into one of the cubbies. Then he glances at Karen, half expecting to see her still clothed. But she’s wadding up her own clothing with far less care than he took with his. Without really meaning to, his gaze slides over her. She is pale as marble and there’s a slight gauntness at her hips and waist as if she’s lost weight in a short amount of time. She catches him looking and he glances away. “Sorry.”

“It’s okay,” she says. “I mean—you’re married. Nothing you haven’t seen before, right?”

Her use of the present tense makes his stomach clench up, but he doesn’t correct her. She saw the photo of Maria and the kids, and she must think they’re still out there. She doesn’t know his past; most people don’t know the truth. No paper covered it—they just ran with the ‘vet that lost his mind’ story. He should probably correct her, but he hasn’t. Partly because he doesn’t want to dredge up those memories… and partly because she seems to regard the fact he’s married as a small comfort. Maybe she thinks he’s less likely to make a move on her if he’s got a wife on the outside.

“Yeah,” he says quietly. “Nothing I haven’t seen before. Unless you’ve got extra toes or something.”

She picks up her towel and wraps it around herself. It doesn’t quite cover everything, leaving a gap up along her thigh to her stomach. Her shower shoes are bright green flip-flops that were likely meant for a man. They fit awkwardly around her toes. Frank’s are gray rubber and at least they’re broken in. She says, “No extra toes. And it doesn’t matter if you see. Everyone’s going to look, anyways. Half of the guards stopped by to watch my strip search when I was first brought in. Not like I’ve got much to hide.”

Fuck. He hates people sometimes.

A line appears between her brows. As if she saw his flash of fury and it has confused her. “Frank?”

“’S’all right,” he says quietly. “We’re gonna get clean, then get out. Anyone tries to come near you, I’ll make them swallow their own teeth.”

She lets out a little sputter of a laugh. “You paint quite a picture, Frank.”

He gives her a half-smile. Then it falls away. “Listen. I’m never going to touch you without asking first. But if those guys out there think you’re with me…”

She nods. “Yeah, I know.  First thing most guys ask at bars is if I have a boyfriend. Not if I want to talk or even if I’m interested.” A scowl tugs at her mouth. She looks at him square in the eye, and her hands tighten on her towel. “Whatever you think is necessary, do it,” she says quietly. “I trust you.”

It hurts to breathe for a few seconds. The weight of that trust is staggering and he fears it might crush him, but then he regains his footing again.

He’s a soldier. It’s an escort mission; he has had plenty of those. Get the target in and out of enemy territory unharmed.

He rests a hand at the nape of her neck. Her skin is soft beneath his fingers, the ridges of her spine at his thumb. They walk into the showers together.

The showers are set up for a minimum of privacy—but they were designed for men. There are half-walls between the stalls, presumably so men don’t spend the entire shower staring at one another’s dicks. The short walls will do little to protect Karen’s modesty.

A few of the men glance up and do double-takes.

He knows what they’re thinking. Frank has all but branded “PROPERTY OF FRANK CASTLE, TOUCH AT YOUR OWN RISK” across her skin. From everything he knows of her, Karen probably is less than pleased about that. She is fiercely independent and he admires that—but here, other men will take it as a challenge. They’ll see her as something to be broken to their will.

Fuck that. Just—fuck that.

Frank meets the eyes of everyone in that room.

“I see anyone’s hands on their dicks and they lose both,” he snarls. One man lets out a nervous laugh while others look away. Only two keeping watching, brazen and undeterred.

Frank takes note of their faces.

“Come on,” he murmurs to Karen, and gestures toward the stall on the far left. There are places to hang towels so they don’t get wet, and Karen hesitates only a moment before slipping it over the hook. Her arms go across her breasts and she looks at the far wall. Frank makes sure she takes the half-stall nearest the wall, so if anyone wants to touch her, they’ll have to go through him first.

She twists the knob—and the first spray of hot water across her skin makes her shudder. She makes a small sound that could be a gasp or a groan, and then all thoughts of eyes on her must fall away because she begins scrubbing at her skin, her hair. She seems to relax for the first time since—actually, this may be the first time he’s ever seen the tight line of her shoulders relax. Frank turns his attention to his own shower—and to his own surroundings. He keeps a tight watch on the proximity of any other men, but they seem to understand that to come near Frank right now would be to court grave injury. He keeps his own shower quick, then he goes for his towel and scrubs the water from his short hair. When he glances over his shoulder, Karen is wrapping her towel around herself. There is color high on her cheeks and she’s smiling as she tosses her slick hair over her back.

“It’s going to take a while to dry, but I don’t care,” she says. Her good cheer lasts all the way back into the cubby room, where Frank begins pulling on his clothes. Karen is buttoning her jumpsuit when a voice rings out behind them.

“Well, well. Looks like we just missed the show.”

Frank is moving before the sentence is half-finished. He half-steps in front of Karen, his knuckles drawn tight in a fist. Jackson stands there—burly-muscled and a bandage across his shoulder. He looks a little worse for wear, but he's up and moving—unfortunately. His mouth is set in a hard grin, the edges too sharp to be genuine.

“You got her into the showers with you?” says Jackson. He clucks his tongue reprovingly. “If you were smart, you’d be sharing. I know a few people who’d pay well.”

Frank’s jaw works. Most of the time, his fights in here have been impersonal. It’s been about survival or helping someone else. But this one… this is different.

She’s not for sale,” says Karen. Frank can’t see her expression, but she sounds like she’s biting back anger. “Try Tinder.”

“Love to, babe,” replies Jackson. “Problem is, we’re not allowed cell phones in here. And our options are limited.” He tilts his head, trying to get a better look at her around Frank. “I could make it worth your while. Treat you real sweet.”

“I saw you treat people the other night,” Karen replies. She sounds angry enough that if she were trained for it, Frank has no doubt she would be slamming Jackson’s face into the wall.

“So you like being the Punisher’s pet?” says Jackson. “He got something I don’t?”

“Yes,” says Karen tightly, “he does.”

Jackson’s grin doesn’t shift. “Keep on talking. Someone’ll get tired of it, soon enough.” He takes a step closer to Frank, voice lowering. “And you best keep an eye open, Castle.” He bumps him as he walks past, beginning to pull off his shirt.

Frank doesn’t bother dressing the rest of the way—he merely pulls on his shoes, checks to make sure that Karen is ready to go, and then they retreat from the showers. He’s hyper alert the whole back to their cell, every sense straining. It’s only when they’re back to their cell that he realizes his hand is hovering over Karen’s back—not quite touching, just ready to grab her if he needs to.

His arm falls back to his side. Karen wraps the damp towel around her hair, wringing out the ends. Frank finishes putting on his jumpsuit, buttoning it up. For a few moments, neither says a word.

“Sorry about that,” Frank finally says. Now that the tension has left him, he’s left with a lingering sensation of failure.

Karen throws him an incredulous look over her shoulder. “For what?” She straightens, tosses her towel over her shoulder. “Frank. I’m clean.” She runs her fingers through her hair with a kind of wondrous disbelief. “And that asshole didn’t even get a look at me.”

“He’ll try again,” says Frank. “Now that he knows you’re showering with the rest of us.”

“I don’t care,” she says coolly. “He can look all he likes, but he’s never going to touch me, right?” Again, there’s the weight of her trust. She believes in him, and he isn’t quite sure how to respond to that. She exhales and drapes her towel across the line. She does the same with Frank’s. “Listen. I—can you teach me how to fight?”

That startles him. “What?”

She tucks a bit of hair behind her ear. Her blonde strands are darker when wet, and somehow her eyes seem even bluer like this. “Can you teach me how to fight? It’s just… I hate feeling like this. Maybe, if I knew I could fight back…”

It’s a good idea. Nothing’s going to happen to her when he’s around, but he can’t always be near her.

“Yeah,” he says. “I can teach you.”

Chapter Text

They begin the next day.

There is a free period for them just before dinner. Frank considers the best place to do this—ideally, it would be the yard, but he won’t take her there.

Crowds are dangerous in this place. Crowds that have access to weightlifting equipment even more so. He’s seen more than one fight there—and when the combatants have access to barbells, the casualties are significantly higher. He should go himself, though. With all of the adjustments, he let slip his usual rigorous workout schedule.

So the yard is out. So is their cell, because there isn’t enough room. The rec room is too visible. The laundry room will have people working in it. Which leaves—

“The chapel?” asks Karen, as he holds the door for her. She steps inside with a bit of hesitation, her gaze swinging about the room. It’s just a room; federal laws won’t allow for any one denomination. There are chairs bolted to the floor and a raised stage and little else. But there’s room and it’s empty.

“No one will come in here right now,” he says. “It’s as good a place as any.”

Karen’s fingers move to the back of her neck. It’s a nervous habit, one she seems to allow herself in his presence. She used to keep her arms stiffly clasped around her stomach. “Is this… okay?”

“With the guards?” he asks. “Or with God?”

Karen throws him a half-smile over her shoulder before ducking her head. “I just don’t want to piss anyone off.”

“If anyone asks, I dragged you here for some privacy.”

He still despises their cover story—but he won’t hesitate to use it. He’ll use every weapon at his disposal to make sure she stays safe in here, even if it means leveraging his reputation and looking even more of a brute. If Maria were standing beside him, he knows she’d agree. She once saw a woman being followed on a subway and stayed with her until the other woman got home safely. It meant Maria arrived late to date night—a rare occurrence when he was back from deployment. They were so often busy with the kids and with responsibilities. It was worth it to make sure she was okay, Maria told him.

Fuck, he misses her.

The ache hurts just as much as ever, so he tries to turn his attention to his surroundings—and to the task at hand. Karen heaves herself up and onto the stage, glancing about with the wariness of one unused to places of worship. He would put money on her not having stepped inside a church for years. Frank follows easily. “Okay. You have any experience with fighting?”

Karen cocks one pale brow. “You mean, have I been in bar fights?”

He exhales. “No. Classes, instruction.”

She shakes her head. “No. I carried pepper spray on my keychain before this. I’m a decent shot with a gun. I always thought that’d be enough.”

That’s a bit of a surprise, he’ll admit. He hasn’t pictured her with a weapon before—but it fits. She’s smart. She knows what kinds of dangers the world holds, and she seems like the type to be prepared.

“Okay,” he says. “We’ll go over the most important thing then.”

“Shiv Technique 101?” she asks, with the slightest of smiles.

“More like 401,” he replies, not missing a beat. “Knives are advanced class and you’re a beginner.”

She nods, rubbing her knuckles. “Punching, then?”

“Escaping,” he says.

She blinks. “What?”

“Your first and only job if you’re attacked in here,” he tells her, “is to escape.” He holds up a hand before she can reply. “Listen. Even if you did have experience, I’d be telling you the same thing. Numbers matter. And in here, you’re outnumbered hundreds to one. Doesn’t matter if you can punch, not if they can bury you. They will overpower you with sheer numbers.”

Her gaze flicks over him; in the dim light of the chapel, her pale skin appears almost white. “Doesn’t seem to stop you,” she says quietly.

He meets her gaze and holds it. “Mostly because I’ve been taught how to kill at all costs. Whether I live or die is incidental.”

She draws in a sharp breath. “When—when you fight—you want to die?”

“No,” he says. “I just don’t really care if I live.” He shifts his weight onto the balls of his feet, readying himself. “But you—you’re going to survive.”

“Am I?” she says quietly.

“Yes,” he says.

He spends the entire afternoon teaching her how to break a grip. It’s the basics, and while she picks up on it quickly, he makes her do it again and again and again. “When adrenaline hits, all you’ll have is muscle memory,” he tell her, when she asks why they’ve spent so long on a single move. “You won’t think, you won’t be able to think. So you’re body will have to memorize this.” He seizes her forearm.

She reacts at once, seizing his wrist with her other hand and twisting so that his elbow and shoulder twinge with pain. He has to release her or risk a dislocated joint.

“You can also break fingers in that same position.” He takes her hand, carefully clasping it around his own wrist. Her fingers are soft, lacking the calluses of his own. “Instead of twisting the whole elbow joint, you can simply…” He takes hold of her thumb and slowly pulls it taut—not enough to hurt, but enough to demonstrate. “That’ll dislocate the thumb.”

She watches every movement attentively. “I heard it was easier to break a pinky.”

“Thumbs are more important in a fight.” He makes a fist. “Dislocate or break one and it’s much harder for them to grab you.”

He’ll give her this: she is a fast learner. By the time dinner rolls around, she reacts fast enough that he nearly doesn’t release his hold in time.

“Good,” he says. “Good.”

She beams at him, pleased. The activity seems to have eased something in her; she seems more relaxed, more calm.

It’s only now he realizes that part of her stress has probably been boredom. She’s used to having a job, a life. Being caged away like this must be its own form of torture.

As they walk down the hallway, a few of the older men are passing by. They’re the lifers—too old to really be of any danger, but their sentences ensure they’ll never get out. One of them has skin so thin Frank can see delicate veins at the creases of his eyes and another has a walker. One of them beams at Frank and says, “Hi, Willis.”

“Mr. Burns,” he replies, nodding his head.

Once they’re past, Karen glances at him in a silent question.

Frank shrugs. “First day in, that one decides I’m actually his great-nephew. It’s easier for him if I just go along with it.”

Her gaze doesn’t waver—there’s a small line between her brows. “Sorry. I just, didn’t peg you for the kind of guy who deals with a lot of dementia patients.” 

“My father had early onset Alzheimers,” he says in explanation.

“Oh.” She looks away, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear as if she needs something to do with her hands. “I’m sorry.” And she does look truly sorry—in that aching way that truly good people are. He’s seen that expression on Curt’s face sometimes.

“He wasn’t that young.” Frank shrugs. “He and my mom had me when they were in their mid-forties. Both ended up passing away nearly ten years ago.”

“Still,” she says, and halts the sentence there, as if she isn’t sure how to finish it.

“Your parents live nearby?” he asks. It occurs to him that beyond her former career and supposed crime, he doesn’t really know much about her.

“My dad is up north,” she replies, after a heartbeat of hesitation.

She makes no mention of her mother—which is answer enough.

“How often can you teach me?” she asks.

He allows the change in subject. “A few times a week, at least,” he says. “I do need to visit the yard sometimes, though.”

Karen gives him a half-smile. “And I can’t come with you, right?”

“Right,” he says. “I’ve seen three people die out there. Two in an altercation between the gangs, and one because a guard shot them in the head.”

She winces. “I used to go the gym occasionally. I guess that’s a thing of the past.”

“We can work a little in the chapel,” he says. “At least get you doing some push-ups.”

“It’s sad how good that sounds.” She touches her forearm, running her fingertips over the muscle. She’s still distressingly thin, and he makes a mental note to stop by the commissary and buy something with protein in it. Jerky is expensive, but it’s not like he has anything to spend his credits on. Frank is pretty sure that Bill stepped in and helped take care of Frank’s financials when he was arrested. Bill always had a knack for that. From a few things Curtis let slip, Bill found a decent estate lawyer to handle Maria’s will and the rest of the assets. Some of that money is directed into Frank’s commissary account at the start of every month—even if he found very little use for it beyond coffee and some emergency rations. He should buy more food.

“Hey,” she says, and he realizes their nearly to the dining hall. He let his attention wander for too long. His gaze sweeps out across the expanse of lunchroom tables and moving forms.

“Yeah?” he says, taking a tray.

“What if I never get out of here?” she says, so quietly he almost doesn’t hear her. “We keep talking like—like it’s temporary, like it’s only a matter of time until I’m transferred to a women’s facility, but what if that never happens?”

They move up the line, and Frank watches as one of the servers drops a heap of something brown and casserole-like on someone’s tray. He thinks of this just being his life now—training Karen to fight, reading the books that Curt sends him, listening to Lucero chatter at every meal until the kid gets out. “How long is your sentence?” he asks, keeping his voice low. That’s one of those questions considered impolite to ask so outright but he thinks she won’t mind.

She doesn’t. “Fifteen years before I’m considered for parole,” she says. “My public defender managed to get it down from twenty at least. Made it sound like… like Daniel had drugged and maybe tried to assault me. He at least put enough doubt out there to lessen the sentence.”

Frank makes a skeptical sound in the back of his throat. Fifteen years. It sounds like some pretty shitty lawyering to him.

“Then you’ll stay,” he says.

When Frank was deployed, Curt used to read a lot of nonfiction books. Most of it was medical, some of it wasn’t.

Frank would borrow the books on occasion, his bruised hands thumbing through the pages. They always smelled like clean paper and a home that was half a world away.

One of those books was on astronomy. A basic guide, little more. Frank remembers a few pieces—the scope of the galaxy and how earth is a speck of dust amidst billions of other specks, how planetary rings are only temporary things, and how gravitational pull is one of the most important guiding forces of the universe. Everything orbits something—even rogue planets and comets that seem to have no predictable path. They are caught in a tide, whether or not they realize it. And while some objects are tied to stars, others gravitate around black holes. Frank used to think that was a comfort—that everything circled someone else. He used to know where his point of gravity could be found: in a house thousands of miles from deployment.

Now—now he doesn’t know what he orbits.

A week passes. In that time, Frank works his shift in the laundry room, finishes reading the book Curt sent him, and teaches Karen how to escape a chokehold. Sometimes Lucero joins them, watching avidly and asking for a few tips. Frank ends up just telling the younger man to get up on the stage so he can teach Lucero how to throw a punch the correct way. Lucero does so, grinning all the while. Karen and Lucero banter a bit as they try out a few of the escapes that Frank teaches them, but Frank is pleased to see they both take it seriously.

They know this could be a matter of life or death.

After these sessions, they usually hit the showers. Karen has become a little more relaxed in there—if only because she relishes the chance for warm water and soap. Lucero goes with them, and he makes such a point of not looking at Karen that he nearly strains something in his neck. Karen laughs, tells him it’s fine. But Lucero still mutters something about it being like looking at his older brother’s wife and takes the shower beside Frank.

Jackson shows up once while they’re showering. Frank hears his voice and glances up sharply to see the dark blonde head turn the corner into the showers. Karen is washing her hair, eyes closed and oblivious. Frank scrubs the last of the soap from his own hair before turning off his shower. He keeps a level gaze on Jackson. The other man looks at Karen, and his smile is all hunger. He catches Frank’s eye and his grin widens. He makes no move to approach, but he stands by the wall and observes until Karen is finished and realizes that he’s there. Her posture stiffens, but defiant anger flares in her eyes. Seemingly unembarrassed, she walks to where her towel hangs along the wall and dries her hair before wrapping it around her torso.

Frank secures his own towel around his waist before nodding at Lucero to go first. Karen falls into step behind him, and Frank takes up the rear.

“Enjoy her while you can,” Jackson murmurs, as they walk by. Lucero bristles but Karen doesn’t so much as look at him. Frank breathes evenly, his gait never changing, his attention on the room as a whole.

But as he passes by, his knuckles itch. There’s that old flare of anger, so deep he almost forgot it was there. Kill the killers.

A few moments drag into an eternity.

He has only killed in self-defense since he came to prison. Those who attacked him have been fair game, but Frank has never sought out a fight. There was no point; no one in this prison had anything to do with the park massacre. And even if many of the people here are killers, they’re caged and kept away from innocents. Frank has no desire to end them. 

But the way Jackson looks at Karen...

For the first time since he came here, the Punisher feels the urge to hunt.

He could do it. Jackson’s standing beside a wall. Frank could grab him, slam his skull into the tiles of that wall, then break his neck. So long as he acts quickly enough, Jackson might not even fight back.

But Jackson has friends. And enough ties to Dutton that killing him might provoke a reply.

The moment ends.

Frank walks by him and Jackson doesn’t make a move.

He will, though. He will. Of that, Frank has no doubt. Jackson has too much pride and anger not to try something.

One morning, he wakes and realizes that his right shoulder is—for lack of a better word—fucked.

He groans as he rolls over, using his left arm to push himself upright. He rises with a grimace and begins stretching out his right arm, trying to work some warmth back into it.

“You okay?” Karen is perched on the edge of the bunk, watching him. He crosses his right arm over his chest, hooking his left around so he can rotate the joint a little.

“It’s fine.” He manages to get his right shoulder to bend the right way, even if it feels like pouring molten metal into the bone. A grunt, a pop, and a bit of tension releases.

Karen winces. “That sounds—not fine.”

“It’s fine.”

Karen tilts her head, and the harsh light glances off the pointed tip of her nose. “You ever watch Monty Python and the Holy Grail?”

Frank grunts. “Hasn’t everyone?”

“You know the scene when the black knight gets his arm cut off?”

This time, he’s the one to give her a flat look. “My arm did not get cut off.”

“And yet,” she says, the hint of a smile edging into her words, “I think that if it had, you’d be saying the same thing.” She rises from the bed, coming to stand before him. She’s nearly his height, something she’s tried to hide with hunched shoulders and an unassuming gait. He has a feeling that out in the real world, she probably walks with a confidence that would turn a lot of heads.

“You don’t have to be all stoic,” she says. “I get you have to front for the other guys in here, make them think you’re Mr. Invincible. Hell, you had me half-convinced when I first met you. But you’re human, Frank. And humans get hurt sometimes.” Her gaze slides across his chest, to his right shoulder. “This is from sleeping on the floor, isn’t it?”

He would shrug, but he has the feeling it’ll hurt like a mother. “Yeah.”

“Then that stops tonight,” she says, with more firmness than he expects. “I can take the floor.”

“You are not sleeping on the floor,” he says.

She crosses her arms. Probably just to prove that she can. “Is this a chivalry thing?”

“I’ve slept on floors before,” he says. “I’ve slept on dirt. This is nothing.”

“I was once a broke twenty-something,” she retorts. “I have done the floor thing, don’t think I haven’t.”

He looks at her—and he realizes why he doesn’t want her on the floor. She’s more than just a mission now—she’s become a companion. She’s smart, she’s stubborn, she’s brave as any of the men he’s served with, and as she’s grown more comfortable with him, he’s caught glimpses into the playful, warm person she must have been before all of this happened. He enjoys her company.

And he isn’t going to sleep on a bed while she’s on concrete.

“I’m not putting you on the floor,” he says. “Maybe that’s irrational, shit, I know it is. But I’m just not doing it.”

She must hear the finality in his tone because she just sighs and goes to use the toilet. Luckily, he no longer has to hum every time; she’s grown more used to living with him. Frank pulls on a clean jumpsuit and uses one of the shitty disposable razors to keep his stubble from growing into a full-on beard. He’s going to need to get his hair cut soon.

Karen makes coffee for both of them and hands him a cup. He takes it with his left hand.

“Maybe we shouldn’t train today,” she says.

“I can’t, anyways.” He takes a sip of the coffee. “I’ve got an appointment at eleven, then my laundry shift.”

“An appointment?” She downs half of her own coffee in a few swallows. “Like, with a lawyer?”

He chuckles. “He acts like one sometimes.” He sobers a little. “It’s my scheduled visitation day. I have a friend coming—old buddy of mine from the corps.”

Her expression flickers so quickly he almost doesn’t catch the momentary confusion before she settles into a smile. “Oh. That’s good.” She begins making the bed, folding the blankets so the COs will have nothing to complain about.

All inmates get visitation time about once a month. Curt has shown up every month, dutiful and calm, and while Frank couldn’t really appreciate it in the beginning, he’s come to look forward to the fifteen minutes of conversation. He could pay for a call, but those are taped and saved, and Frank has never been a big phone person.

After breakfast, Karen goes to her job at the commissary while Frank strides down the hallway. Getting into visitation means being searched, then an escort to another building, then a search after the visit. It doesn’t matter that there’s a bullet-proof wall between inmates and visitors. At least Frank is so used to it that the searches don’t bother him. The guards are intimidated by him, too wary to try some of the shit they will with other inmates.

A little past eleven, he’s allowed into the room itself. There is that low-slung table, divided by plastic barriers, the old phones, and—there he is. Curt sits at one of the phones near the end, smiling through the glass. Frank slides into the seat across from him, picks up the phone and says, “Hey, Curt.”

“Hey.” Curt’s smile widens. “Good to see you. You look—”

“Good in orange?” Frank replies.

“I was going to say ‘better,’ but that works, too.” Curt’s gaze flicks over him. “No, really? You been sleeping more or something? Started a skincare routine?"

Frank lets out a hoarse laugh. “Been bunking on the floor. Like old times.”

All of Curt’s amusement vanishes at once. “They have you in solitary again? They can’t do that. Not without cause. If they’re—”

Curt is all care and gentleness, save for when someone threatens a person he considers under his protection. On those occasions, Curt is all fire.

“Nothing like that,” says Frank. “It’s a long story and there isn’t much time, but… there’s a woman in here.”

Curt frowns. “I thought this was a mens’ prison?”

“It is,” says Frank. “The guards say it’s because there’s no room anyplace else, that it’s temporary, but I don’t think it is.” Frank glances from side to side, checking to make sure of his surroundings. The man to his left speaking in rapid Spanish to a woman on the other side of the barrier, too loudly for anyone to overhear Frank. And the nearest guard is yawning.

Frank angles the phone more closely against his mouth. “Someone wants her dead. So they sent her here.”

“Shit.” Curt looks as angered by this as Frank feels. “That’s low.” He nods at Frank. “You want something, don’t you?”

“Yes,” Frank replies. “She needs better lawyers. She’s got some public defender, but they haven’t done her any good. There’s gotta be someone willing to take on this case—it’s a constitutional rights nightmare, putting her in here. Someone’ll take it on.”

“You want me to go lawyer shopping?” Curt looks thoughtful. “What’s her budget?”

Frank hesitates. This is something he’s thought about—and fuck it, it’s not like he needs the money. “Use my accounts.”

Curt blinks a few times, making no effort to hide his surprise. Maria and Frank both took out life insurance when Lisa was born, and Frank put away a little every month for retirement and college funds. 

“Thought you were saving that for when you get out,” Curt says quietly.

Frank laughs, and it’s hoarse and unamused. “I’m never getting out, Curt.”

Curt’s expression darkens. “The appeal could lessen your sentence. You need new lawyers, Frank. You should—”

“Tell you what,” Frank says, “you do this for her, then we’ll talk about my situation afterward.” His fingers tighten around the phone. “She can’t stay here, Curt. I’m doing what I can, but… she’s going to get hurt.”

“And you don’t want her to.” There is something in Curt’s voice—a realization that makes him tip his head back a little. As if he’s trying to get a better look at Frank. “You—what does this have to do with you sleeping on the floor?”

“Because she’s in my bunk,” Frank says. “Some corrupt CO thought it’d be funny to give her to me. Like throwing a rabbit into a den of wolves.”

Curt’s mouth curls into a silent snarl. “Assholes.”

“Yes,” Frank replies. “But it worked out. No one’s going to mess with her as long as I’m there.”

There’s a moment of quiet while Curt studies Frank. Curt has always been observant, aware of the people around him. “You care about her.”

“She’s a good person,” Franks says quietly. “I—Maria would have liked her. The kids would’ve liked her. Hell, you’ll like her, if you ever get the chance to meet. She’s got too much heart for a place like this, and it’s going to get her killed. Her name is Karen Page. She was convicted of murdering a coworker—someone called Fisher. But the situation was… let’s just say that isn’t all there is to it."

Curt nods slowly. “All right. I’ll see what I can find. Talk to some people. The ACLU might have something to say about her staying here long term.”

“Thanks.” Frank presses his knuckles to the transparent barrier. “Thanks, brother.”

Curt does the same. “You stay safe, okay?”

“You, too.”

And then the CO is walking toward them, telling Frank his time is up. Frank rises from his seat, nods one last time to Curt, and readies himself for his second strip search of the day.

That night, Karen braids her hair more tightly than usual. Frank only notices because he’s watched her do it every night since that first one, when she retrieved a few rubber bands from her cell. Her fingers work through the blonde strands with old ease, and then she pulls the brain over her shoulder. She glances down at her lap, one hand folded against the orange of her jumpsuit. A flush rises to her cheeks, and then she seems to force herself to meet his eyes.

“Big spoon or little spoon?” she says.

His toothbrush dangles for a moment from the corner of his mouth. When he recovers himself, he spits toothpaste into the sink and turns to face her.


There’s a steely set to her mouth. “You won’t let me sleep on the floor. I’m not going to let you. So we’ll share—we can stack the mattresses, give it a little more softness.” Her eyes flick over him, then she gives a nod. “You’re a big spoon kind of guy, aren’t you? I can see you being a big spoon.”

“Neither,” he replies. “My wife tossed and turn at night—if I was too close, I’d risk an elbow to the face.” The words flow out unexpectedly. He isn’t even sure why he says it. Maybe it’s because she’s easy to talk to. Maybe because in her mind, Maria is still alive—and strangely enough, that feels like a comfort. It’s like Maria and the kids exist somewhere outside of his own memories.

A smile breaks across Karen’s face. It’s like pushing curtains aside, like sunshine spilling into a darkened room. “Really?”

“Nearly broke my nose once,” he admits.

“I run cold,” she says. “Every person who’s had to share a bed with me complained about my icy feet and hands. So I won’t break any bones, but I may give you frostbite.”

“I run hot,” he replies. “It won’t be a problem.” And he realizes, even as he says the words, that he’s agreed to share the bed with her.

She scoots to the wall side of the bed, then pats the scant bit of mattress left. It isn’t much; these beds were meant for one.

Frank doesn’t move.

She sees his hesitation and says, “You can’t sleep on the floor forever. You’re going to end up injuring yourself—and if you try, I’m just going to bunk on the floor, too. So no one will get the bed.”

He believes her; she’s determined enough to do it.

His shoulder aches and he cannot deny her logic; he won’t end up sleeping well if he continues on like this. And lack of sleep can make a person vulnerable, which he cannot afford. He sits on the very edge of the mattress and meets Karen’s eyes. If they’re going to do this, she needs to know. “I’m going to wake up at some point during the night,” he says quietly. “Don’t touch me, don’t try to restrain me. Just—stay still. Let me figure out where I am.”

She nods and doesn’t ask questions, something he’s almost painfully grateful for.

The bed is narrow enough that there’s no way to avoid touching one another. She isn’t a short woman, and even when she rolls onto her side, trying to curl into the wall, he ends up with hair in his mouth. He isn’t quite sure what to do with his arms; one is tucked beneath him but the other is precariously balanced awkwardly across his side. If she were Maria, he would have draped that arm around her waist, pulled her close until she fell asleep. But she isn’t Maria.

He can feel every point of contact between them—the tip of his nose brushing her hair, the brush of her back to his chest when she inhales, the backs of her knees against his legs. Even clothed, there is an uncomfortable intimacy to it.

For a few moments, she doesn’t answer aloud. Then she says, “Frank?”


“Sleep well.” The way she says it, he can tell she was going to say something else.

They don’t speak again; Frank listens to her drift off, and then he falls asleep as well.

He dreams of green grass, of the scents of perfume and sunlight, the soft bread of a sandwich in his hand, and laughter—always laughter. So much he can drown in it.


Everything is torn apart.

He wakes with a start, quick breaths against his teeth. His fingers alight on a shoulder, and for a moment, relief crashes over him. “Maria,” he murmurs. She’s safe. She’s safe. He moves a little closer, pressing his forehead against her. It was just a nightmare—she’s safe and—

Hair brushes his knuckles. It’s long, too long. The smells are off, too—sharp industrial soap.

This isn’t the house, this isn’t home or anything close to it.

He breathes, and after a minute or so, everything is calm again. He’s in prison. Maria and the kids are gone. Which means it isn’t Maria beside him.

“Sorry,” he mutters, releasing Karen. He scoots back, trying to give her space.

“You okay?” she says.

He almost laughs at the question—she’s asking him if he’s okay, after he probably just scared the shit out of her. He wouldn’t blame her for demanding him out of the bed.

“Sorry,” he says again. “Didn’t mean to scare you."

He hates nights. Before he was arrested, he would have picked up a police scanner or cleaned his guns or double-checked his stores of ammo or just gone for a walk. But this place took all of that from him. In the beginning, he dealt with it by numbing himself out, by never thinking about any of this, by existing in a state of akin to sleepwalkers. He let himself fall into a torpor, because it was the only thing that kept him sane. But now, now he feels awake and alert in a way he hasn’t for months. And with it comes pain.

She rolls over, and the dim light from the hallway falls across her face. “You didn’t scare me,” she replies quietly. After a pause, she says, “Maria—she’s your wife, isn’t she?”

“Yeah,” he says.

Karen says, “You miss her, don’t you?”

He thought he was prepared for any of her questions, but not that one.

“Yeah,” he says again.

Karen doesn’t say anything more. But she reaches down and takes his hand. Her fingers are soft, a little familiar because of all the combat practice. She squeezes his hand—just once, a silent communication that is sympathy and empathy all in one. Then she rolls over, back onto her side, and remains quiet. It takes nearly an hour, but he feels her relax back into sleep. 

Frank listens to her near-silent breathing for the rest of the night.

Chapter Text

In Karen’s fourth month of incarnation, things change again.

She’s working in the commissary when she feels it—a telltale dampness between her thighs. She clenches hard, pressing her legs together.

“Hey,” she says tightly. “Can I—do you mind if I use the bathroom?”

The man who works with her at the commissary is CO Davies; he’s one of the outside contractors, someone who has bounced from prison to prison without seeming to land anywhere. As far as she knows, he isn’t married, doesn’t have kids, and is in his mid-forties. Age has settled into the lines criss-crossing the backs of his hands but his face remains youthful. He never quite looks at her straight-on—it’s always half-glances. He is working on tallying up purchases for the day, double checking the math. “You’re supposed to wait for break.”

Another bit of wetness and Karen clenches even harder. She isn’t sure if it’s helping or not. “Please,” she says. “I think—it might be an emergency.”

He rises from his seat, coming to stand before her. He’s of average height but his shoulders are broader than hers. “You want to submit to a search, then? Because you could be smuggling things out of here.”

Heat creeps up the back of her neck. This is the part she will never get used to: the depersonalization. She isn’t a human being to most of these people; she’s a prisoner, and thus, barely human. It’s an infuriating reminder of her own powerlessness.

Her fingers threaten to curl into fists but she holds them at her sides, loose and unthreatening. “Please,” she repeats, and she tries to soften her voice. “It’s—I think I might be on my period.”

Those are the magic words. CO Davies’s eyes move up and down her body, pausing for a heartbeat between her legs. The corner of his mouth curls in something like distaste. “Fine,” he says. “Go deal with it.”

He unlocks the commissary’s back entrance—there is a private restroom, meant for the COs, but he lets her use it. It could be a kindness or maybe he’s just worried she’ll bleed all over the supplies. Karen locks the door behind her and finds herself… alone.

Utterly alone.

She can’t remember the last time she had privacy. But there’s no time to revel in it. She goes to the toilet, pulling down her pants and underwear and—yes. Sure enough, there’s a crimson stain across the fabric. Grimacing, Karen tries to clean it off as best she can with toilet paper, then turns to the wall.

It’s empty.

No tampon or pad dispenser.

For a moment, Karen just gazes at the spot where one should be; if she stares hard enough, maybe one will appear.

Of course it won’t. There are no female COs. There aren’t supposed to be any female prisoners, either. Karen leans back against the toilet. She hasn’t had her period in well over six months. She used to be on birth control and was used to going without a period. Taking those placebo pills always seemed pointless when she could just skip the bleeding and be done with it. But bringing birth control into prison would have meant a ton of paperwork and visiting the infirmary every day, so when she was incarcerated, she left them behind. The stress of it all—she supposes it took this long for her body to get back into old rhythms.

And now she wishes it hadn’t. Because she’s sitting on a toilet with stained panties, no tampons, and a sickening twist of tension in her lower belly. With a sharp, frustrated breath, she takes as much toilet paper as she can and packs it into her panties, tries to ignore the dry scrape of it against her inner thighs as she rises and pulls up her pants. She returns to the commissary, waddling a little.

She doesn’t have much in her commissary account but this isn’t negotiable. She needs tampons.

So she tells CO Davies as much. He doesn’t even bother to check his list of supplies. “We don’t have them. I’ll put in a request with our vendor.”

“Pads?” she asks.

He shakes his head.

“How long?” Her voice is taut with suppressed frustration.

He shrugs. “Dunno. Usually takes a month to get approval for a new item.”

“I need them,” she says.

“Well, you’re going to have to wait,” he replies, going back to his clipboard.

Karen closes her eyes. “Can I at least leave my shift early?”

“Yeah, you do that.” He doesn’t seem to want to touch her, not as he unlocks the front door and she walks by him to leave. She won’t be paid for this shift, but at the moment, it’s the least of her worries. She returns to her cell—it’s empty. Frank is on his laundry detail, and then he mentioned stopping by the yard. If he doesn’t do so every few days, restlessness creeps into his body. Karen’s glad he has something to tame whatever haunts his dreams. She only wishes she could go outside, as well. She would do anything to smell fresh air or feel sunlight on her face.

Drawing their makeshift privacy curtain around herself, she removes the sodden toilet paper and glances around the cell. There’s only one thing that might work: her washcloth hangs from the drying line after this morning’s shower. She yanks it free and folds it over, tucking it in place of the toilet paper. It’s just as rough, but more absorbent.

Cramps set up along her lower back and stomach and she gives into the urge to crawl into bed. It’s only one in the afternoon, but she doesn’t care. She’s exhausted and in pain and using a goddamn washcloth as a pad. She will allow herself this afternoon to convalesce.

Around three, Karen checks the washcloth. It’s nearly full of blood and she realizes this isn’t going to work. Not without a second one. She has to wash this one out, let it dry a little before she can use it again.

She glances at the line. Frank’s washcloth is there, too, and while she normally would never take anything of his, she thinks he would prefer this over her bleeding into their bed. She takes the clean cloth and scrubs out her first one in the sink, using that harsh bar soap to try and make it clean again. The blood slides down the white sink and the cloth slowly turns a rusted brown beneath her hands. She wrings it out and hangs it up, then returns to bed.

She must have fallen asleep, because when she opens her eyes, it’s to Frank beside her.


His voice is low, urgent. Hands on her back, skimming across her shoulders. She rolls over, looks up into Frank’s face. He’s pale—and for a moment she thinks it must be from the cold. It’s November and winter will be settling into the city. But then she sees the tight angle of his mouth and the fear lurking at the back of his eyes. Something’s wrong. A riot? Another attack? Or—

“Who was it?” he says. Then he shakes his head. “Shit—not important. How bad?”

She blinks at him. “What?”

He seems to be biting back an angry reply. “There’s blood in the sink—a stained bandage. What happened?

Understanding eases her own confusion and fear. “I’m sorry. I just, I’m on my period.” She sits up with a groan. “I thought I washed out the sink better. I’ll—” She begins to stand, but he holds out a hand.

“No, no,” he says. “If that’s—that’s all it is, I’ve got it. I just… you’re okay?”

He was scared, she realizes. The tightness around his mouth and eyes that she mistook for anger—it’s fear.

“I’m fine, Frank,” she says.

His shoulders relax a fraction. “Okay. Okay. You—you got everything you need?”

She grimaces. “No.”

This time, he blinks at her. “What?”

“They don’t have tampons or pads at the commissary,” she tells him. She wedges one of the thin pillows behind her aching lower back. “They said it would take at least a month for the request to go through.”

He glances at the damp washcloth hanging from the line. “So you…?”

“I wadded up a washcloth,” she says wearily. “I stole yours—I’m sorry. I needed another while I washed out the first and let it dry.” She glances at the laundry line, and he follows her gaze. The washcloth isn’t exactly a bright red; thanks to her scrubbing, it’s more brown.

“It’s fine, I can get another.” He speaks as though he’s not really giving any thought to the words. He shakes his head. “At the risk of sounding like an asshole… can I ask why the commissary hasn’t ordered them in by now?”

“You’re not an asshole,” she says, smiling a little. “And—well, this is the first time I got my period since I arrived. It’s a hassle to figure out pills and everything here, so I ended up just opting out of my birth control, which screwed up my cycles a little. And I guess…” She shrugs. “Stress and I didn’t eat much the first few weeks. I was actually a little grateful I didn’t have to deal with it. But now…”

It’s only as she says the words that she realizes what they mean. The truth is, she’s been eating more thanks to Frank’s stash of commissary food. And while prison still isn’t anywhere near relaxing, she’s stopped fearing for her life every second of the day. She’s showering regularly again, even getting a little exercise. And thanks to him sleeping beside her, she’s warm at night. She isn’t happy here—but life has become surprisingly tolerable.

It’s because of him. All of it—the food, the showers, the safety. She depends on him for all of it.

Karen hasn’t depended on anyone in years—not since her mother died, if she’s honest with herself. She picked up the slack at home; she managed the diner and waited tables and tried to keep her home running. When she was with Todd, she helped him sell drugs and rarely stayed with him more than a single night. And after she left home, she survived on her own. Always on her own. It became a point of pride for her that she didn’t need anyone.

But as long as she’s in prison, she’s going to need Frank.

The thought makes her stomach churn with fear and a bit of desperation. She doesn’t want to depend on anyone, but she has little choice.

“You want me to ask around?” he says. “Commissary’s not the only way to get something.”

She does know that—there is a thriving black market, thanks in part to both Dutton and the gangs. The offer is a touching one, but she doesn’t want him incurring debt on her behalf. “I can deal with this for a few days,” she says. “But thank you.”

“Okay.” But his nose is scrunched and he keeps glancing at her, then away. At first, she wonders if this is a period thing. Some of the guys she’s spent time with were utterly grossed out by even the mention of menstrual cramps. Frank doesn’t seem disgusted, though. He glances at the stained washcloth with vague indifference. Rather, he seems irritated with himself.

“Did you think someone had shanked me or something?” she asks, her mouth twitching at one corner.

“Or something,” he echoes quietly. His index finger curls around his thumb, pressing it as if he needs something to hold onto.

He looks so unsettled that she scoots up along the bed and pats the empty space. “Sit down.”

He does, but he still doesn’t quite meet her eyes.

“What is it?” She is too tired to suss out his thoughts.

“Should’ve thought of this,” he mutters. “Should’ve realized. It’s just—shit, it’s been a long time.”

“Since?” she asks.

He makes a vague gesture with his shoulders. “Living with a woman.”

Karen frowns. “You and Maria… are you separated—”

“No,” he says, shaking his head. “Nothing like that. It’s just—deployments lasted fifteen months. I’d just come back when… when I—” He trails off and doesn’t continue.

Fifteen months. He was away from his family for fifteen months then—then whatever happened, well, happened and he was imprisoned here for another year and a half. Which means it’s been nearly three years since he’s lived with his family.


No wonder he looks so desolate when they’re mentioned.

“Hey,” she says. “I’m sure they miss you, too.”

He doesn’t reply. His fingers clench around each other, gripping his index finger harder, and then he says, “You up for dinner?”

“Not really.” She touches her stomach. “Cramps always take away my appetite. I was just going to spend the rest of the day in here and hope tomorrow things get a little more bearable. You should go eat, though. I’ll be fine.”

He nods, then rises from the bed. She curls onto her side again, closes her eyes. She listens to the sounds of him moving about the cell, water running in the sink, then footsteps fade into silence. Karen falls into a light doze and she has a few vague, shapeless dreams. They’re of normal things: of driving in cars and offices with bright sunlight streaming through the windows, of city streets and of all the freedom in the world. They will turn darker, given enough time. The sunlight will go dark, the cars will overturn into masses of broken glass and sharp metal, and her blood-slicked hands will be wrenched behind her and put in handcuffs. That’s the way these dreams always go.

But she wakes before any of that can happen.

There’s something warm against her stomach. It eases the tightly coiled muscles, soothes the ache. She blinks her eyes open and finds her hand curled around a hot water bottle. She is sure she doesn’t own a hot water bottle, and neither does Frank. Frank—who is behind her, his own warmth against her back. “Frank?” she murmurs, still sure she’s dreaming.

“Go back to sleep,” he says quietly.

“What is this?”

“Talked to someone who works in the infirmary.” His hand curls around hers, gently pressing the hot bottle to the tender place beneath her navel. “Go back to sleep.”

She wants to ask why he isn’t at dinner, if he really did go to the infirmary, what deals he made for this small comfort, but she’s too tired. The heat of his body and the water bottle ease the tight grip of the pain, and she closes her eyes.

If she has to depend on anyone in here, at least it’s him.

She falls sleep between one breath and the next.

When she awakens, it’s early the next morning. Frank is asleep beside her, his breath at the back of her head. He snores, but not in that ripsaw way. It’s more of a quiet grumble. His arm is still around her, fingers loose on the blanket. And again, she finds herself wondering at the contradiction that is Frank Castle.

He isn’t friendly or overtly sweet. But he is observant and quietly thoughtful in a way she never expected. He makes sure she has enough food, whether that means shopping at the commissary or giving her some of his own portion at the mess hall. He slept on the floor without complaint until she all but dragged him into the bed. He’s made a point of keeping his eyes on her face when they visit the showers together.

He’s just… decent in a way she never expected from the Punisher. She knows he’s killed plenty of people; she has witnessed a few of those deaths. But he’s never provoked a fight, never killed for any other reason than to save himself or someone else.

It makes her wonder what happened.

She remembers little of the news stories about the Punisher—just that he was supposedly a vet that had returned from overseas and never stopped killing.

Maybe it was PTSD or some kind of episode. Maybe he went on medication and reacted badly to it.

But she doubts it. There’s something in the way he’s alluded to his crimes that makes it sound deliberate. He has never told her that he regrets them, that he wasn’t responsible, that it was all a misunderstanding. He isn’t prideful about his reputation but nor does he shy away from it.

Which again brings her back to her theory about his family. Maybe he was protecting them. She’s only ever seen him fight to protect. If Maria took money from the wrong people, or perhaps her family was mixed up in something shady, she could easily see him fighting to keep his family safe. Maybe none of them felt safe going to the cops. After Karen’s encounters with them, she can understand that.

His family hasn’t come to visit him. Which would imply a separation, but Frank denied it. And there’s the way he treats that photograph—like a devout man entering a church. There’s a reverence, a kind of acknowledgement. And he still refers to Maria as his wife, so they can’t be divorced. If his wife and kids were still in danger, maybe he warned them away. Or perhaps he just doesn’t want them to see him in here.

She thinks of her father, how he might look at her if he ever deigned to set foot in this building. He won’t, Karen knows that. Mr. Page will never come visit her here, because to do so would be to admit that Karen didn’t die that night on the road. Karen has tried to cling on, with a few scattered phone calls and letters over the years, but by now she knows the tether is all but broken. She has no family left, and that’s why she’s glad that Frank does. It’s comforting to see another person have that, even if she never could.

There’s a sharp intake of breath beside her ear. Frank always comes awake silently, even on those occasions when he’s in the grip of a nightmare. He has never shouted; only the tautness of his shoulders and ragged edge of his breathing ever give him away.

But Karen has woken from enough nightmares to recognize them, even if they go unspoken.

“Hey,” she murmurs, rolling over. He’s always a little bleary in the morning: his sharp features blunted with sleep. He rubs at one eye with the heel of his hand. “Good morning.”

He grunts. “‘Morning.” He isn’t quite awake yet. He swings his legs over the side of the bed and rises, stretching, before heading to the toilet. Karen lays on her side, a little reluctant to move. Her cramps have subsided but there’s still that heaviness in her gut. Maybe she should go through the paperwork of trying to get on birth control again—although it would probably be a pain. According to regulations, inmates aren’t supposed to have ‘relations’ with one another. It’s bullshit, of course, but if she asks for pills meant to prevent pregnancy, the doctors will probably give her a hard time about it.

Once Frank has used the toilet, Karen rises from the bed. She takes the now-dry washcloth from the line, replacing her sodden one. She washes out the used one in the sink, glad that blood has never been an issue for her, and also glad that Frank seems rather blasé about the whole thing. She’s known other guys that would have recoiled at the sight of a bloodied pad—but he doesn’t seem fazed at all. But then again, she realizes, he probably has some experience with blood. 

“You up for breakfast?” he asks. He kneels beside their bed, pulling the blankets tight. He’s a diligent bed-maker, and she appreciates that.

She nods. Her appetite hasn’t quite returned, but she wants to get out of the cell. And she’d like to see the others.

They walk in companionable silence to the dining hall and take their places in line.

Breakfast is a hardboiled egg, a biscuit, a meat that could be hamburger shaped into patties, and a heaping spoonful of margarine. If Karen ever gets out of prison, she is never eating margarine again. At least there’s coffee. She takes her tray to the usual table. Hodges has arrived early, and he is halfway through his meat patty of unknown origin. “Good morning,” he says. He squints at her. “You all right?”

“I’m fine,” she says.

Hodges snorts. “You look worse than I do, and I spent the entire night wishing for death instead of that mattress I’m sleeping on.”

Karen frowns. This is one of the hardest things she’s come to see in prison—the elderly. Those lifers who have been in here so long that they know they’ll die here. Even the ones who are losing their memory, who can’t get the care they should have. It makes her chest ache.

“Can I help?” she asks, and that earns her a second snort.

“Not unless you’re a chiropractor and haven’t mentioned it until now.”

Karen smiles. “That’s one thing I never studied. Sorry.”

“And you?” asks Hodges, turning to Frank.

“Learned how to break backs not how to fix them,” Frank replies. He seems at peace with his meat patty, something Karen envies. She tries to saw into the edge of hers with a spork; it doesn’t quite work. She picks up her biscuit, instead. It has the metallic tang of too much baking soda, but she follows it with a swig of coffee.

Lucero arrives carrying his own tray. He sets his food down with a dramatic flourish and says, “Guess what day it is?”

“Friday?” says Karen.

“It’s Saturday,” says Hodges.

“I keep losing track,” she murmurs. Without work or school to ground her in the calendar, it could be any day of the week.

“You’re both wrong,” says Frank. “It’s Thursday.”

“Okay, Schoolhouse Rock,” says Lucero, grinning. “I didn’t ask for a ‘days of the week’ song but go right ahead.”

“How do you know about Schoolhouse Rock?” says Hodges. “You’re too young.”

“Youtube,” replies Lucero, with dignity. “Now, anyways—who knows what day it is?”

A pause.

“Thursday,” Karen says.

“Pretty sure we’ve established that,” says Frank. He shovels half of the meat patty into his mouth.

“Not the answer I was looking for,” says Lucero. “It’s…” He spread his hands expansively, as if holding out a grand prize. “Turkey Lotto.”

Karen blinks. “Turkey lotto?”

Hodges gives Lucero a flat-eyed stare. “That’s what you’re so excited about?”

“Is this a lottery where someone wins a turkey because I could get behind that.” Karen gives up on trying to saw through her meat patty and begins eating her boiled egg instead.

“No,” says Lucero. “Thanksgiving visiting hours. It’s a special visitation day—more than one person can visit at a time and they get a whole half hour. Problem is, there’s not enough time to fit everyone, so we all get put in a lottery and whoever wins gets that visitation time. The names’ll go up later.”

Karen’s gaze falls to her half-eaten breakfast. That would be exciting if she had anyone who would visit her. The most she’s hoping for on Thanksgiving is an edible meal.

Once they’re finished with breakfast, Karen goes to the commissary and Frank to the yard. He’s got a day off, while she’s scheduled for work until Sunday. It’s fine, though; she needs the credits. Karen restocks the shelves, wincing as she bends over on the lower ones. Her back is still a little achey, but at least the washcloth solution seems to be working. She might actually make it until the commissary manages to order tampons.

She works two hours before CO Davies goes abruptly still at the front counter. Something in his stance makes her tense and she remains crouched behind the row of chicken ramen.

The voice behind the counter is low, a little raspy.

“Davies,” he says. “Where’s that shipment?"

It’s Dutton.

Karen’s heartbeat picks up and her fingers tighten on her clipboard. She isn’t sure if she should remain hidden or try to slink away to the back. She is pretty sure she doesn’t want to hear this—knowledge is dangerous. She, of all people, knows that. And she doesn’t want Dutton thinking that she’s an eavesdropper.

Davies casts a look over his shoulder. “I’m not alone in here, man,” he mutters.

Dutton lets out a hoarse chuckle. “Who’s back there?”

Karen grits her teeth, but she cannot pretend not to hear. Not when she’s only a row away. She rises to her feet, knees creaking a bit as she stands. She holds her clipboard like armor across her chest, and she gazes through the bulletproof plastic into Dutton’s face. He looks just as she remembers—middle-aged and average, but with the keen eyes of an old wolf.

“Hello, doll,” he says, smiling.

Her jaw clenches.

“She’s fine,” says Dutton. “She won’t say a word. Now, you,” he looks at David, “go to the trucks and get that delivery. Or else we will have something to talk about, okay?”

“I’m not supposed to leave an inmate alone in here,” Davies says. He is barely moving his mouth, as if hoping somehow that will help his case. Or maybe he just doesn’t want Karen to hear him.

“She’s fine,” Dutton repeats. “She knows better than to get in trouble. Besides, I’ve got some shopping to do.”

Davies’s neck is a tight line, but he gives a jerky nod and walks to the back door. He unlocks it, then steps through and vanishes from sight.

Leaving Karen alone in the commissary.

With Dutton on the other side of the glass.

“What can I get you?” she asks. Years of customer service spring back to her—but she regrets the question instantly. It would take the slightest quirk of his lips to steer an answer into unwanted territory.

“Shower shoes,” says Dutton. “Size ten.”

Karen doesn’t move for a heartbeat, stilled by surprise.

“The strap broke on one of mine,” says Dutton, shrugging one shoulder.

She nods, and walks to the back few rows where they keep the rubber shoes. She finds a box for size tens, and carries it to the counter. “Anything else?”

“Coffee,” he says. She retrieves that, too, setting it beside the shoes.

Dutton watches her all the while. It isn’t a covetous look—or even an angry one. It’s all calculation and observation and it’s far too knowing for Karen’s liking. Dutton has never hurt her, has never ordered anyone to hurt her, but he wields too much power in this prison to be anything but a threat.

“You should be celebrating,” he says.

She picks up her clipboard again, settling it in her arms. She feels better with something in her hands. “Why?”

“I passed by the list,” Dutton says, “of those who won the Thanksgiving visitation lottery. You’re on it. Congrats—only fifty people get that time.”

Of all the things she expected him to say, this wasn’t it. She takes a moment to collect her thoughts—it isn’t as though she needs the time and she doesn’t really want it. Maybe there’s a way to pass it to someone else.

Dutton would know, if any inmate does.

“Will you get that time?” she asks.

He smiles. “Don’t really need it, doll. I can talk to whoever I want, whenever I want. Lotteries were never really my thing. If I’m gonna gamble, I want some control.”

She can see him at a poker table, cards between his fingers and a smile on his mouth. He does seem like the type.

“Can visitation time be transferred?” Karen asks.

Dutton raises his brows. “You don’t want it?” He leans against the counter. “Pretty thing like you doesn’t have someone pining for her on the outside?”

Karen bites back her reply.

“Who’d you want to give your time to?” asks Dutton, seemingly amused. But he seems to decide her answer before she can cobble one together. “Your keeper ain’t got nobody to come see him, so if you’re looking to sweeten up your treatment with a gift, don’t bother.”

Surprise makes her hands go slack on the clipboard. “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” she says coolly, and she doesn’t know if she’s referring to Frank’s family or that everyone in this prison seems to think that Frank is abusing her.

Dutton chuckles. “I guess if I were him, I wouldn’t be bothering to tell you about my history, either. Too busy, I expect, for talking.”

Karen feels her mouth draw tight into a silent snarl. “Frank’s told me plenty. And if you won’t tell me if that time’s transferrable, fine. I’ll talk to a CO. Families should be able to meet up at Thanksgiving. Please move aside in case anyone else wishes to—”

Dutton says, “His family? They’re dead.”

The world whites out for a few moments.

She can’t quite see or hear, and when everything comes back to her, she’s trying to catch her breath.

Those words ring with a finality and honesty that leaves no room for questions or explanations. Those two words are a full story, a tragedy, all on their own.

She doesn’t doubt Dutton, not for a moment. Because suddenly it all makes sense. Those parts of Frank she hasn’t been able to reconcile—the killer and the man… they fit. It all fits.

They’re dead.

And she thinks of them again—the bright, open smile of the woman with dark hair; the grin of the boy and the play of sunlight across the girl’s happy face.

All of those people are dead.

And the fourth person, the man behind the camera, probably died a little, too. She knows what it feels like to rise from the ashes of a loss, to discover that parts of herself were changed by it. The Karen Page of nineteen ago was a far different person than the Karen Page of now.

They’re dead.

And now she knows why Frank Castle became the Punisher.

“It wasn’t an accident, was it?” she says quietly, but it isn’t really a question. She’s sure about that.

“No,” says Dutton. “It wasn’t. Castle and his family were in the wrong place at the wrong time. There was a deal going down, three gangs trying to negotiate. Things went south.” He shrugs, seemingly unconcerned. “Bad news for the gangs, though. Castle put at least thirty-seven of them in the ground. Probably more.”

Karen thinks of those times she mentioned his wife or his kids—asking about their interests, the pictures they drew, what his wife did for work—and every single time he answered in the present tense. He let her think they were alive, they were out there waiting for him—and she can’t fathom why.

And then she thinks of the truths she shared with him and mortification crawls up her stomach, coldness winding up her ribs.

Karen has gone most of her life with people blurring the truth: her father blithely saying the diner would be fine, her boyfriends saying nothing was more important than she was, the sheriff altering the accident report when Kevin died, countless dates or almost-dates offering up untruths about their jobs or marital status, fucking Union Allied Construction and their pension plan and now—and now Frank Castle, who she thought was honest, let her believe something entirely untrue.

It hurts. There is a visceral pain behind her sternum.

“Might as well keep your family time, doll,” says Dutton. “He won’t be needing it.” He gives her a little nod.

She barely notices when CO Davies returns with an unmarked box. Dutton leaves with his new shoes, coffee, and the box—all carried away by a burly man who stands a few steps behind Dutton. Davies keeps shooting furtive looks at Karen, but she doesn’t care that he’s probably the source of the drugs in prison. She can’t bring herself to even really think about it. It feels like the world is unsteady breath her. As if some foundational truth has abandoned her, and the world is threatening to cave in on itself. This single untruth has changed everything, because it means she can’t trust anything Frank’s said.

When her shift is over, she leaves in a daze, barely seeing the prison as she walks through it.

She goes straight to her cell—no, not her cell. His cell. She’s just inhabiting it.

Her fingers seek out the copy of the book where he’s slipped his family picture. She pulls it free, gazing down at those three familiar faces.

They smile back up at her.

She isn’t sure how long she stands there, but she hears when Frank walks into the cell. She recognizes the steady footfall, and the way he breathes when he sees her holding the picture.

She looks up, and to her relief, her voice is uninflected. “You lied to me,” she says.

His gaze travels between her face and the picture in her hand. His mouth thins and he steps forward, taking it from her. His hand cups protectively around the edges, as if he’s half-afraid she’ll damage it. Like she would.

He doesn’t know her at all.

And she never really knew him.

“What do you know?” he asks quietly.

“That all of those times—you let me think they were…” She has to swallow a few times. “They’re dead, aren’t they? And you never corrected me, not once.”

“I know,” says Frank, but his eyes are on the picture. “I should’ve said something before. I let you think—”

“Yes, you did,” she says. “What, did you think that I couldn’t handle it? You had to protect me because I’m—” She isn’t sure how she’s going to finish that sentence: a woman, not a fighter, dependent on you—

And abruptly, she’s furious. At her situation, at him, at this place.

“I thought—I thought maybe you were only comfortable with me because you knew I was married,” he says.

“Really?” She lets out an incredulous, unamused laugh. “No, Frank. I wasn’t comfortable with you because I thought you were married. I was comfortable because I thought you were honest.” She shakes her head. “I told you—shit, I told you things I have never told anyone. And I thought—”

He looks up sharply and for the first time, she sees a bit of anger. “You think it’s easy talking about them? I never talk about them. Not to you, not to the cops, not even to my fucking lawyer when he begged me for something to say on the stand. Yeah, they’re dead. All of those people in that picture, is that what you want to hear? That I watched my kids get shot so many times they were just meat?”

All of the breath goes out of her.

She remembers Kevin, still and staring, and it’s still one of the worst memories of her life. She can’t imagine—

“Frank,” she says, her anger draining away.

He goes abruptly silent, and his eyes are flat. Seeing something she cannot. Shaking his head, he backs out of the cell and strides away.

Karen is left there, alone in the cell, listening to his stride as he walks away.

He doesn’t return all afternoon.

He doesn’t come to dinner, either.

Karen eats with Hodges and Lucero and thinks of all ways she could have said things differently. She should have handled it more carefully. 

Karen heaves a heavy sigh and rises from the table. She brings her tray to the right stack, then strides from the dining hall. She hopes Frank will be in the cell, hopes she can talk to him.

She needs to talk to him. He should have told her—but she can understand why he didn’t.

The cell is empty.

“Dammit,” she murmurs. She hates this separation, hates knowing that he’s probably avoiding her.

She imagines all the places he could go this time of day—not the yard, because the doors are locked after dinner. Not the rec room because he despises it. Not the laundry rooms, as he’s not on shift.

The chapel.

Karen glances at the clock; she has an hour before curfew kicks in and everyone needs to be in their unit. That’s more than enough time to go to the chapel and find him. She walks down the hall, out of her cell block, and past a few chattering guards.

She’ll apologize. She’ll tell him she’s sorry for jumping to conclusions, for snapping at him like that. They’ll work it out.

They have to.

The chapel doors are shut, as is their custom. Anyone inside who wants to pray should have some privacy. She pushes open the doors and walks in. The rows of chairs are empty and still, and the stage has no one upon it.

The place is deserted.

“Shit,” Karen mutters. Maybe he really is at the laundry room. There isn’t anywhere else for him to hide.

She hears the almost-silent whisper of the doors opening behind her. She starts to turn, but before she can move, an arm closes around her throat.

Karen reacts on instinct—she digs her chin into the crook of that arm. Then she seizes his forearm and pulls it toward her, throwing her assailant off-balance as she turns her shoulder into a fulcrum and throws him off of her. There’s a grunt of pain, then the hold slips away. Karen staggers against one of the chairs, using it to keep herself upright as she turns to face her attacker.

Jackson stands there.

There’s a shiv loosely held between his fingers and a crooked smile on his face.

“We,” says Jackson softly, “are going to have some fun.”

Chapter Text

Frank spends the rest of the afternoon in the yard. He needs something to do with the jitters beneath his skin, and his other options are all far unhealthier. Frank has seen men lose themselves at the bottom of a bottle or get into fights they couldn’t win just to feel something. Frank has always kept a tight grip on his vices—and he isn’t about to let loose now. He strides into the yard and nods at one of the men, a young one that looks as if he might throw up at the sight of the Punisher. Frank goes to one of the benches and loads up a little more weight than last week.

He fucked up. He knows he did—he should have said something far earlier than this, shouldn’t have let her find out this way. If he’d just told her before, it would’ve stayed a misunderstanding. But he let it go on too long for it to be anything but a lie.

The iron is cold against his palms, but it swiftly warms up. He should technically have a spotter, but he doesn’t care and no one’s going to tell him to stop. His arms and chest swiftly warm up, and a sweat breaks out on his forehead. He pushes through it all, losing himself to the rhythm of the work. And all the while, the conversation keeps replaying in his head.

Karen has never been truly angry with him before. She’s been irritated, annoyed a few times, but she’s never looked at him with… distrust. It’s something he hadn’t realized until he walked into that cell. She’s always trusted him, even when she knew nothing about him. It’s only now that understands how much he’s come to rely on that trust—because he isn’t sure she’ll give it again.

He probably doesn’t have any right to ask for her trust. Not after everything he’s done.

Karen has a knack for sifting through his past to find the good memories—his fingers against the strings of a second-hand guitar, the folded crayon pictures Lisa used to draw for him, Maria stealing covers and defending them with flailing elbows and knees. He forgot some of those things until he spoke with Karen; he liked how she spoke about his family, how she treated Maria and the kids like they were real people instead of tragedies.

It was a selfish decision to keep quiet. He should have told her the moment he realized she assumed they were still alive. But he didn’t—and now he is sweating, his muscles straining. He sets the bar back into its rack and sits up, breathing a little hard. Then he moves toward one of the squat machines.

It’s only when every muscle is a little shaky and his lungs are scraped raw, that he stops. And honestly, it’s only because there’s the warning bleep that announces the doors are going to be locked. Frank is the last one in the yard, and he strides inside, wiping at his damp hair. He’s a mess, and he should shower. A glance at the clock says it’s dinner time, but he isn’t hungry. And he can’t face Karen quite yet.

He heads to the showers. They’re nearly empty, which is a small comfort. He stands beneath the hot spray of water, eyes closed, and tries to scrub away the last few hours.

It doesn’t matter if she likes him, he tells himself. It doesn’t matter if she trusts him. All that matters is she stays alive in this hellhole. So long as he can keep her safe, that’s all that really matters.

But—fuck. There was something comforting about having someone around who—who didn’t look at him like all they could see was blood and empty shell casings. Who laughed at his jokes and smiled at him in the mornings.

He’s probably sleeping on the floor again tonight.

He leaves the showers, walking back to the cell. He’s avoided her long enough; he might as well face the music. He rounds the corner and comes to a halt.

The cell is empty.

It’s empty.

He frowns at the made bed and evenly organized shelves. It’s late for her to still be at dinner, but maybe she’s in the mess hall. Frank strides out of their cell and down the hallway. A few men glance at him, then away. One of them has a half-slant of a smile and it sets Frank’s teeth on edge. But there’s no overt challenge so Frank continues past. When he arrives at the mess, he finds it mostly empty. Lucero and Hodges are there, lingering over cups of coffee.

“—You are not allowed to have an opinion about films until you’ve seen Casablanca,” says Hodges.

“Whatever, you can keep that black and white old stuff,” says Lucero.

“Where’s Karen?” asks Frank.

Lucero looks up, a frown between his dark brows. “Thought she was heading back to your guys’s room. If she were here, she’d back me up. The eighties were the golden age of film, not the forties.”

Hodges scoffs.

“No, think about it,” says Lucero. “Ghostbusters, Return of the Jedi—”

Frank turns on his heel. He leaves the mess without a backward glance. She isn’t in their cell, she isn’t having dinner. The rec room, perhaps. He never enjoys spending time in there, but she will occasionally read or watch sports. His pace is swift but not quite a jog; running would draw unwanted attention. Even so, he’s breathing a little hard when he comes to a halt in front of the rec room doors. There are the familiar old couches, the tv, the board games.

No sign of her.

A tendril of dread curls around his spine.

She’s… gone. He can’t think of where she would go. Maybe she’s gone to one of the COs, to try and request a new living situation. But that doesn’t track. Maybe she’s in the laundry room? But he cannot think why she’d go there.

He stands there, torn in two directions, unsure where to go, when it hits him.

There’s always one place that’s deserted. One place she might have gone to avoid him.

He turns and heads for the chapel.

It’s a five-minute walk, but he makes it in two. His steps slow as he rounds the corner.

There’s a red-haired man standing outside of the chapel. He has his arms crossed, bulging biceps and goatee, like a bouncer at some club. He’s one of the men who hangs around Jackson; Frank recognizes him by sight, if not by name.

“Chapel’s in use,” says the man.

There’s something in the way he says it—a sneer overlaid across the words. A smugness, a taunt.

Karen is in there.

And she isn’t alone.

Frank doesn’t hesitate. He seizes the man’s shirt and slams him against the wall. The man goes limp at once, sliding down to the floor. He steps over the groaning man and pushes open the chapel doors.

He gets two strides into the chapel before he sees flecks of blood on the carpeted floor.

Frank’s gaze swings up and he sees everything at once.

Jackson stands there, all broad-shoulders and bulk, his blonde hair shining beneath the dim chapel lights.

Karen is near the stage. She’s bleeding, that is Frank’s first thought. Her right hand is covered in blood and she has it pressed protectively against her stomach. A defensive wound—she must have tried to grab whatever Jackson attacked her with. No—she didn’t just try. She succeeded. She has a shiv in her uninjured hand, and it’s the same goddamn shiv that Frank stabbed Jackson with. The bastard must have kept it. She has it in her good hand, holding it a little awkwardly but keeping the pointed end between herself and Jackson.

Jackson must have threatened her. But he wouldn’t have known that Frank taught her how to disarm an opponent, how to turn aside a weapon and seize it. But even armed, she still doesn’t have the advantage. Jackson is ex-military, trained to fight, and more than that—he likes it. He likes inflicting pain, watching people flinch. Karen probably only managed to take the shiv because Jackson wasn’t expecting her to fight back.

That analytical part of Frank’s brain—the part that kept him alive in bombed-out cities, in forgotten wildernesses, in the midst of battles that took better men than him—is sifting the situation apart, finding its weak points. Jackson needs to be incapacitated. He doesn’t have to be killed, so long as he can’t fight. Frank isn’t sure he can kill Jackson, not now. Not with a hostage at stake and the lingering exhaustion of a two-hour workout. Fuck, that was stupid. Frank let things slip because of guilt and anger, and now everything is falling apart.

His first and foremost priority has to be Karen. She’s injured and closer to the threat. And if anyone else comes upon this fight… violence is like fire; it has a way of catching, of exploding into more. Frank needs to end this fast, grab her, get back to their cell, back to a defensible location.

If something happens to her, this is on him. He left her alone and now—

“You really should take better care with your playthings,” Jackson says. He takes another step toward Karen, and she retreats until her back hits the stage, the shiv held at the ready. “Someone might take them.”

“Get away from her,” Frank says. His voice comes out low, barely a whisper.

Jackson laughs. Even with Karen armed and Frank at his back, he’s still confident. He’s used to power, used to wielding it with little regard for others. Frank knows his type.

“Wouldn’t do that,” says Jackson. “Come closer, I mean. You can run—but she can’t.”

Frank’s back teeth grind. Jackson has a point. Jackson is perhaps five steps from Karen, and Frank knows how fast a person like that can move. Jackson could seize the shiv, yank it free, and stab her repeatedly before Frank could cross the room.

“You aren’t going to hurt her,” Frank says, voice still low. “She’s no good to you dead.”

Jackson glances over his shoulder at Frank. “How I figure it, if she’s not gonna play nicely, then there’s no point in keeping her around.” He bares his teeth. “Why let you have all the fun?”

Shit. Frank bites back the curse. If Jackson thinks he has nothing to lose in this, then that changes things. He can’t reach Jackson in time, not like this, and if he can’t count on Jackson to want Karen alive—

“This why you came here?” Frank says. He speaks louder now, raising his voice deliberately. “You get off on hurting people who can’t hurt you back? You’re a fucking coward.”

Anger flashes across Jackson’s face. His smile twists into a snarl and he takes half a step toward Frank. Good—Frank wants that distance closed. Karen shifts a little to the left, edging along the stage. She can’t just scramble atop it; that would take a few precious seconds that she might not have.

“Like you’re one to talk, Castle,” Jackson says. “You’re a sick fuck. I’ve heard Dutton mention what you did to some of those gang members—bet your little piece of ass wouldn’t be so warm and friendly if she knew about the cartel?” Jackson turns back to look at Karen and she goes still. “Meat hooks,” Jackson says, almost conversationally. “He strung them up on meat hooks. While they were still alive.”

Karen’s gaze darts past Jackson to Frank. For the briefest moment, their eyes meet. He glances down to the shiv in her hand, then gives the slightest shake of his head. He remembers their first session together: her eagerness and energy, that flash of determination in her eyes when she readier herself. His words come back.

Knives are advanced class and you’re a beginner.

He hopes she remembers. That shiv is more a danger to her than it is to Jackson. It needs to be taken out of the situation.

He cannot read her expression.

She has no reason to trust him. To believe in him.

But god—he wants it. He wants that trust and he has almost forgotten what it feels like to want anything. He has numbed himself out to the world, and it was her presence that revived any semblance of humanity. It was such a gradual thing that he hasn’t realized how much her regard means, not until it’s gone.

Maybe it’s because she looked at him like he wasn’t a monster—and in those moments, he could believe it.

But now, now he isn’t sure if that’s true.

“So how about this?” Jackson says. “We give her a choice. Maybe she’d rather spend time with someone else, now that she knows what you are—”

Karen moves. She pulls back her arm and throws the shiv—not at Jackson, but away from him. The blade skitters under one of the chairs, out of sight. Jackson flinches, following the arc of the shiv with his eyes.

Everything happens at once. Karen darts to her left, bloodied hand still cradled against her torso, toward the stage’s steps, using Jackson’s distraction to put some distance between both of them.

Frank charges.

He crashes into Jackson with enough force to crack him against the stage, and Jackson wheezes, the air knocked out of him. Frank throws a punch into his throat, but Jackson gets his forearm up in time to block. A low growl snarls out of Jackson’s gritted teeth and he throws his head forward, probably hoping to break Frank’s nose. Frank jerks back in time, and in the same movement, manages to hook his foot around the back of Jackson’s knee—jerking it out from under him. Jackson stumbles, reaches for a chair to steady himself.

Frank throws two punches into Jackson’s exposed side, hears the other man inhale sharply, then tries to drive him to the ground with another blow.

This needs to end fast. Disable the threat, get the hostage out alive.

Jackson uses gravity to roll away, slamming into Frank at the knees. They go down, and Frank has never been overly fond of grappling, but he doesn’t need to be. He just needs to keep Jackson down long enough for Karen to get out. He manages to get an arm around Jackson’s throat, but before he can squeeze his forearm, Jackson slams Frank back into one of the chairs. Pain flashes up Frank’s spine and he releases Jackson, one arm tingling with numbness. It takes a few moments to recover, and in that moment, Jackson’s gaze sharpens on something Frank can’t see.

Jackson strains, arm scrabbling beneath the row of chairs, and then he rolls, coming up fast. Frank’s arms are up, ready to block the blow, but Jackson feints right, kicking out and catching Frank on the ankle. He has to fall to one knee to catch himself, and in that moment, Jackson hits him hard in the chest.

It’s not the best place to hit someone—there are ribs to protect the heart and lungs, and it takes a lot of force to break those bones. Frank feels the breath leave him, but it’s not enough to—


There’s a chill. A cold, foreign thing pressing in hard.

He looks down and sees the shiv. Well, the shiv’s hilt—that electrical tape wound around and around. The blade itself isn’t visible—because it’s buried in his chest.

Under the chairs. Karen threw the shiv away, under the chairs, and by some turn of bad luck, Jackson managed to find it.

Frank hits an overturned chair and he stumbles, falls. There’s a deep throb of wrongness behind his breastbone, and that’s when he knows that Jackson aimed true. He managed to get the blade between Frank’s ribs, up into something vital.

Frank tries to sit up, but Jackson’s foot hits his thigh, pinning Frank in place. “Punisher ends here,” says Jackson.

Jackson is staring down at Frank—so he doesn’t see Karen until she’s on top of him. A long pole is in her hands—a microphone stand, Frank realizes—and she cracks it across Jackson’s skull. He lets out a bellow of pain and grabs for it. But Karen retreats out of reach. Her lips are bloodless, but her face is all fury.

“Get the fuck away from him,” she snarls. She hits him again, and this time he seizes the makeshift weapon and wrenches it from her grip, tossing it away.

Jackson tries to grab her but she breaks his grip and jabs her elbow into his side. He lets out a sound of fury, and then Jackson grabs her by the shirt and half-picks her up, her feet skimming across the carpeted floor. He tosses her like a rag doll and she hits the floor hard, the breath leaving her in a rush.

She isn’t going to win this. She isn’t.

Frank looks down at the shiv; he knows enough field medicine to gauge the placement and damage done. The blade’s deep enough to have punctured his right lung or nicked an artery, but he can’t be sure. Not while the blade’s still in there—which is where it’s supposed to be. You get stabbed, you get hit with a bullet or shrapnel you leave it where it is, he can almost hear Curt saying. It could be the only thing keeping your ass from bleeding out.

Jackson seizes Karen by the hair, bending her neck at a painful angle. She makes a strangled sound, lashing out, but Jackson bends her backwards, using the grip on her hair and his bulk to press her into the floor. “Could have made this good for you,” he says, “but now I don’t think I care.”

Karen rakes her nails across his face, drawing bloody furrows across one cheek. Jackson shifts his weight, so that he’s straddling her with both knees pressed to her thighs. Her legs are kicking, struggling to regain a foothold so she can shove herself free. Then, with one hand freed, Jackson drives a bare-knuckled blow into her cheek. Karen’s legs go still.

It’s that stillness that makes the world go red at the edges.

Frank rips the shiv out of his chest, flips it around, and in the same movement, drives the blade deep into Jackson’s throat.

Jackson flails wildly at Frank, panicked. Frank gives him one last hard shove, pushing him off of Karen. Jackson hits the floor and paws helplessly at his throat, trying to save himself from bleeding out. He’s a dead man, though. It’ll only be a matter of moments.

Karen is unmoving. Frank half-kneels, half-staggers to a crouch beside her. “Karen.” Her name tastes like old pennies.

It takes a few moments for her to blink, to come back from where that blow sent her.

“Shit,” she breathes, eyes on his chest. He looks down and sees the spreading pool of blood, soaking into his orange jumpsuit. She puts her uninjured hand over the wound, pressing in. “Shit, you need a hospital. We—”

The chapel doors swing open and two men rush inside. It’s the red-haired one, Jackson’s friend, and one of Dutton’s flunkies. “The fuck,” one of them says, when he sees Jackson’s body.

Frank lunges to his feet, slamming a fist into the first man’s nose—breaking it with a resounding crack. The man goes to his knees, cursing through a mouthful of blood, while the other makes for Karen.

Frank isn’t sure how he gets them both out of the chapel—his memory becomes a blur of blows and counter blows. He remembers slamming his knuckles into another man’s face until he feels something break—in his hand or the other man, he isn’t sure. He remembers hitting the ground at one point and dragging someone else with him, blood covering his chest. This is the problem with caging people: they begin to think themselves more animal than human.

“Come on.” Karen is beneath his left arm, and he realizes it’s half for his benefit as much as it is for hers. “We need to move, come on.”

They stagger out of the chapel together, a tangle of bloodied limbs and grunts of discomfort.

He’s having trouble breathing; every inhale seems to catch and drag wetly in his chest. The shiv probably did hit his lung, then. Adrenaline has been keeping the worst of the pain at bay, but his body is starting to fail him. The hallway swims sideways even as he hears more shouts behind them. It’s like churning shark-infested waters with blood—the frenzy is only starting.

“Aren’t—going,” he says, and every word tastes like copper, “to make it back. You should—run. Just run.”

“Fuck that,” snarls Karen. She glances around, then veers left. Away from their cell block, down the wrong hallway.

“Closet,” she gasps, and then she’s half-dragging him into the custodial closet. Frank hits the wall hard and finds himself sliding down it. Everything’s a little fuzzy now—he’s losing his grip on awareness.

“We just need to stay out of sight until the COs arrive,” she says, pulling the door shut behind them. “Frank?”

The closet is dark with the door shut. There’s a bucket pressing against Frank’s thigh and the smell of bleach is scouring the coppery tang from his mouth. He feels rather than sees Karen kneel beside him, fumbling at his shirt. He feels a fresh stab of pain when she presses something against his wound.

“Sorry,” she says. “I tried—I—”

“Hey,” he says. His tongue is thick against his teeth, the words blunted. “Hey, you did good.”

“After all of those training sessions and I still couldn’t—”

“Fight off an ex-military bruiser three times your size?” He smiles into the dark. “Wouldn’t expect you to.”

“Shit.” Her hand tightens against the wound, pressing down hard. It sends a jolt of agony through him and he grunts. “Shit, Frank. I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have—”

Then there’s a crack of light in the doorway and Karen curses, seizing the doorknob and yanking it shut again. Shouts from outside—threats blurring into curses and demands. The other inmates must have followed the blood. They’re trying to break in, to crack this place open and drag her out. Frank tries to sit up but he realizes he can’t. His legs aren’t responding. Everything is a little distant, a little cold.

He’s felt this before, stumbling out of the Irish compound. He was covered in blood, his foot on fire from the drill, every wound still fresh. He’d expected not to open his eyes again, but he had. And for a while, he’d wondered why the fuck he was still alive. He had no purpose, no reason. Not until—

“Frank.” She sounds close to tears. “Frank, can you hear me?”

Yes, he can. Because hearing is always the first sense to return and the last to go. He wishes it weren’t, because then he wouldn’t have to hear her sob. She is trying to keep the door shut and maintain the pressure on his wound, using one hand for each task.

He promised her that she’d be safe. He promised her. And now he’s bleeding out in a goddamn closet. In a few minutes, he’ll be gone and she’ll be on her own. He failed her. Just like Maria and Lisa and Frankie. He failed all of them—and that hurts more than any physical pain.

He’s fading—and he hates it. Clings to consciousness with the edges of his fingernails. This isn’t how he wants to leave her: not with enemies outside and blood across the floor.

He tries to speak, to say something, he isn’t sure what, but then there’s another pulse of wetness, the feeling of something leaving him, and then the world falls out of reach.

He’s standing on an empty carousel.

Fingers brush against the cool metal of a carved mane, across the saddle. There’s a girl sitting upon the horse, her fingers loose on the worn straps. Her smile is bright as a sunrise and as hard to look away from. “Dad—”

He tries to answer but he can’t. He can’t draw enough breath to reply.

Lisa slides off the horse, walks away from the carousel and toward the grass. He has to warn her. He has to tell her to run, to get away from here, but he can’t. He can’t say a word. He can’t even breathe. His lungs feel as if they are full of fresh concrete: heavy and overfull.

She turns to look at him, hair shining and hand extended.

Run, he wants to say. Run. Sweetheart, just run, just—

Something yanks hard in his chest and he isn’t there.

He isn’t anywhere.

It’s just—dark.

When he opens his eyes, it isn’t to an afterlife. It’s to an infirmary. It takes longer than he would like to open his mouth, to croak a question.

A nurse in turquoise scrubs hears him and leans over. “I think he’s conscious.”

Frank’s mouth moves silently. His throat burns, a dry scrape with every breath.

“Listen, you’ve been hurt,” says the nurse. “You’re going to be a bit groggy, but you’ll be fine, okay? Just—”

“Long,” Frank rasps.

The nurse frowns. “What?”

It takes another try. “How—long?” Frank manages to say. It comes out jerky, barely intelligible.

The nurse’s frown deepens and it takes a few moments for him to understand. “Oh. You mean how long have you been here? About two days.”

Two days. Two fucking days. It seems an impossibility, to be gone for all that time. It was mere moments ago that he was in that closet with Karen, listening to her panicked breaths as she tried to hold the door shut against their attackers. He left her there, alone, to face the danger. He should be back there, helping her.

He has to find her.

He has to—

He tries to sit up, but there are cuffs at his wrists. He yanks at them, snarling wordlessly. There’s a shout nearby, someone backing up so swiftly they hit a table. Metal tools clatter to the hard floor.

He’s aware of someone approaching him with a needle, and he watches it plunge into his IV line.

Sweet coldness in his blood—and he’s out again.

This time, Maria is waiting for him in that darkness.

His head is in her lap, her fingers smoothing through his short hair. Back and forth, back and forth.

He reaches up to take her hand, but he only touches the hem of her dress—and his fingers drag against the material. They’re sticky with blood. And the moment he tries to sit up, he’s alone in the dark.

The next time he wakes, there’s a new doctor at his bedside. A young man, with white-blonde hair and a scowl. “Are you going to make us drug you again?”

He swallows; his throat is too dry to answer.

The doctor seems to take his silence for a peace offering, because he goes about his business without introducing another sedative into the IV line.

“You’re lucky to be alive,” says the doctor, looking own a clipboard. “You had a punctured lung that filled with blood. You nearly suffocated. But we drained the lung, got it re-inflated, and gave you a transfusion.” He seems rather unaffected about all of this—but then again, Frank supposes a prison doctor probably wouldn’t be the kind to have the most warm bedside manner. “Looks like you’ll make a full recovery, presuming there aren’t any complications.” He looks down at Frank and lets out a sigh. “Don’t have any complications, all right? We’re already over budget and transferring you to a hospital would be a fucking nightmare.”

Frank’s crackled lips finally manage to move. “No problem, doc.”

The corner of the doctor’s mouth twitches into a reluctant smile. Then he picks up a styrofoam cup and puts it against Frank’s mouth. Ice chips. Frank allows a few to tip into his mouth, then nods his thanks. His hands are still cuffed to the bed. Once his mouth feels a little less like a shitshow, he says, “Page.”

“What page?” asks the doctor, frowning.

Frank clears his throat. “The woman. There was a woman. What happened to her?”

The doctor’s expression clears. “Oh. I don’t know—I haven’t worked on anyone but you. Looks like several people were injured in the fight, so we had to bring in a couple of on-call guys.” He shrugs. “None of the dead are women, though. So there’s that.”

She’s alive. She’s alive. He hasn’t failed, not entirely.

“How long?” asks Frank hoarsely. “Until I get out of here—how long?”

The doctor gives him a look as if he’s being extremely dense. “A week, at least. Probably two, if I’m being honest. You nearly died—you’re going to need some recovering time.”

Two weeks.

Two fucking weeks.

He hears a beeping—a rising beat—and realizes it’s his heart monitor.

They give him something; it isn’t as strong as the last sedative. He lays there, his body physically unable to panic no matter how much his mind demands it. He stays in bed, wrists cuffed in place, and can’t think of any way out of this.

He failed. Even if she is alive, she’s been on her own for days. And worse, she’s even more vulnerable than before. Those who have a grudge against Frank may try to hurt her just to get at him. And he isn’t there to stop it.

He stares up at the spackled ceiling. Two weeks.

He’ll survive it.

He can only hope she will, too.

One day passes.

Then another.

And another.

Time slows to a crawl, boredom punctuated by discomfort.

His schedule becomes a series of visits: doctors checking on his stitches; nurses getting him up and out of the bed to walk from the bathroom and back again because he needs some exercise; a visit from an investigating CO who asks a few questions about what happened; a new doctor stopping by to check Frank’s vitals; a custodian moping the floors.

Frank stays quiet, stays respectful. If they’re going to let him out of here, he needs to be ready to go. And that means taking his medicine, resting, planning.

He eats the delivered meals with a kind of robotic determination. He sleeps most of the time—there isn’t much else to do. And besides, even with the transfusion, he knows he lost blood. He’s cold at the fingers and toes, and he sleeps too easily.

He hates being injured. It isn’t so much the pain as the vulnerability. He’s been hurt worse than this. But the sensation of being at another’s mercy is one that sets his teeth on edge. There are very few people in the world that he trusts completely, and none of them are in this infirmary, moving about while he’s cuffed to the bed. Any of these people could hurt him, kill him. Even when he was being tortured by the Irish, he still had a way out. Now, he’s helpless. And he hates it.

He has to get out of here. The walls are too white, too close, too sterile. They are blank, empty spaces that allow for no distraction. He can’t even siphon away his thoughts with a book; the doctors haven’t brought him anything to read.

All that’s left are conversations to be replayed and replayed. He remembers too much—he feels as though he could drown in old memories.

More days pass.

The pain lessens and he begins to breathe a little easier.

On the tenth day, the remove the stitches from his chest. The wound is red but healing, and there’ll be another raised scar. The doctor tells him he’s healing well, and he stays quiet.

Finally, on the fifteenth day, they release him.

He’s given a new jumpsuit and he pulls on his clean shirt with some difficulty.

She’s alive. She has to be alive. He’ll find her, get her back to the cell, deal with whatever’s happened. If he can think about it in those terms, he can function.

A CO walks him out of the infirmary, unlocking the correct doors to return him to his cell block. “Stay out of trouble for a few weeks, would you?” says the guard, when Frank steps back into a familiar hallway. He nods to the CO, then strides away.

Frank walks through the block, ignoring the looks from the other inmates. Some appear startled, others angry. Frank pays them no attention. They don’t matter, none of them matter.

He rounds a corner, heart hammering, and steps quickening. He walks up to his cell and—


The cell is empty. It feels like his heart crashes against his ribs. He suspected that she’d be gone, probably taken, but he’d hoped

He’ll find her. He’ll get her out of whatever fucked up situation she’s ended up in. He just needs to know who took her.

Lucero. Lucero will know.

Frank’s steps take him to the rec room. He knows that he should be in bed, but he can’t rest. Not yet.

He’ll ask Lucero and—

She’s there.

She’s sitting on the broken-down couch, a book in her lap. Her hair is… her hair is changed. Cut short, around her chin. It looks strange on her, but not bad. And—and she isn’t alone.

Beside her is a man reading over her shoulder. Frank takes in everything at once—shaved head, goatee, dark skin, and—


Frank would have bet his life on it. There is something about the man. The way he holds himself, with his shoulders straight and eyes slightly unfocused. He is observing the room at large, even as he is reading. Or pretending to read. The man’s gaze lifts from the page and meets Frank’s. There is a moment of quiet challenge, and Frank’s fists clench.

A sharp inhalation.

“Frank.” Karen rises from the couch, book falling to the ground. Frank half-expects the new man to grab her by the arm, to yank her back, but he remains still. Karen is across the room in an instant, reaching for Frank. Her hand hovers in midair, as if unsure if she has the right to touch him. Then she wraps her arms around his shoulders.

He can’t remember the last time anyone hugged him. He bows his head a little, resting it briefly against the slope of her shoulder. That space between her neck and shoulder is all that matters—it’s quiet and safe and so very soft. He breathes her in, allows himself this moment of stillness.

She’s alive.

She’s okay.

It’s the answer to a prayer he never dared utter.

“Jesus Christ,” she whispers. “You’re okay. I didn’t know if you were alive.”

“They didn’t tell you?” he says. It’s a little hard speaking into her shoulder, but he doesn’t let go. He spent two weeks imagining every terrible possibility that could have happened to her—and here she is. It’s more than he could have hoped for.

“No,” she says. She releases him and steps back, her eyes flicking over him.

He takes the moment to study her, as well. Her right hand has been bandaged, but he can see the bruise where Jackson punched her. It’s an ugly faded green mark across her cheek. And then there’s her short hair, cropped to chin-length. It feels as if something has shifted, a subtle change between them.

“Are you okay?” he asks quietly.

“I’m fine.” She straightens. “We should get you back to our cell,” she says. “I don’t even know how you managed to get out of the infirmary like this. You look like shit, Frank.”

A short, startled laugh escapes him and his chest twinges with pain. He wasn’t sure she would want to remain in the same cell as him—not after everything that happened in the chapel. And while he’s sure there’ll be a talk that needs to happen, they’re both around to have it.

“Hey,” Karen says, glancing back toward the couch. “I’m going to take him back to our cell. You mind bringing the book by later?”

Frank almost forgot about the strange man.

The man rises. He stands a good few inches taller than Frank, and he regards the other man with wariness.

Frank shifts his body, angling himself between the other man and Karen. Karen lets out a breath that sounds fondly exasperated. She pushes past him, clearly at ease. “Frank, he’s fine. This is—”

“Cage,” says the man.

Chapter Text

There is blood beneath her thumbnail.

It has darkened to a ruddy brown, to the color of old dirt and coffee stains. The blood could be hers; her right hand has a thick bandage around it. Or the blood could belong to—

Her left hand clenches into a fist and doesn’t release.

She sits on a cot in the infirmary, her knees drawn up to her chest. Her usual jumpsuit has been replaced with that of a hospital gown, and she feels naked clothed only with the thin material. The ache of her period has been made distant by the painkillers a nurse gave her when she was admitted. The walls around her are little more than hangings of polyester and and plastic and she can hear the moans and mutters of those all around her. Karen has not uttered a word in hours, not since the nurse finished stitching up her hand and left her.

Her throat aches with thirst but she hasn’t dared ask for water.

She hasn’t asked for anything—except him.

They won’t tell her if he’s alive.

The last glimpse she caught of Frank Castle was of his hand—pale and bloodied, hanging limply from a gurney as they wheeled him behind closed doors. His chest was a mass of sodden cloth and blood and she could not tell if he was breathing. She is pretty sure he wasn’t—and that thought hurts her more than the slice along her palm or the throbbing in her skull or the places where Jackson yanked out her hair.

She hasn’t told the nurses about her head injury; they saw her bruise and must know she was struck, but she hasn’t elaborated. Part of her doesn’t want to draw that kind of attention, not when it is so desperately needed elsewhere. So she quietly sits on her cot, and when hours drag on through the night, she closes her eyes and falls into a light doze.

A CO comes for her in the morning. It’s the thirty-something with the prematurely graying hair and perpetually tired expression. He regards Karen with exhausted sympathy before pulling up a chair and setting pen to clipboard. “Tell me what happened,” he says.

She gazes at him. “You don’t know?”

“I know that there are two men in the morgue right now,” says the CO. “I know Castle put them there."

She wants to ask if he’s all right, but the CO continues. “I suspect, based on your injuries, that the attack was probably—”

“Jackson cornered me in the chapel,” she says tonelessly. “I went there after dinner last night. He came in after me, threatened me with a make-shift knife. I managed to take it from him, but got cut in the process.”

The CO’s brow twitches. “You managed to take it from him?”

“I took self defense classes,” she says. It isn’t entirely untrue.

“Okay.” The CO writes for a few moments on the clipboard, then says, “What happened after that?”

“Castle came into the chapel,” says Karen. She hates referring to him in such a way, but it’s better. For her image, and for Frank’s, if she doesn’t appear to be too comfortable with him. “He told Jackson to get away from me. Jackson refused. I threw the knife away so it’d be out of the fight, then ran for the stage. Castle grabbed Jackson when he tried to follow, and the two fought.”

More scribbling on the clipboard. “And then?”

“And then,” Karen says, “Jackson found where the knife had fallen. He stabbed Castle and would have killed him, but I tried to fight him off. Jackson grabbed me, hit me.”

The CO’s pen goes still on the page. He exhales hard. “And the motive for this attack? Have you had altercations with Jackson before?”

He must know. Surely, he must know. It must be a mere formality to ask this question.

“Jackson wanted to have sex with me,” says Karen, her voice flat. “Whether I consented or not.”

Strangely enough, that pen remains still. She would have expected him to write that down.

“You are saying he wanted to sexually assault you.” The way the CO says the words is something between a question and a statement.

“Yes,” she says.

Again, that pen remains still.

“Have you had… contact with him of any kind in the past?” asks the CO.

“No,” she says. Her arm hurts and she realizes it’s because she has sunk her own nails into her forearm. She forces her hand to relax.

“You’ve been seen talking to him.” The CO’s gaze is steady. “Could he have misinterpreted your intentions?”

Her stomach pulls tight, and she finally understands.

If this is sexual assault, it’ll have to be reported. It’ll probably be kicked upstairs—it’ll open up things like lawsuits and a potential escape route out of this place. Even if this man isn’t working for Union Allied, he probably doesn’t want the kind of trouble this will bring.

“He punched me,” Karen says tightly. “Grabbed me by the hair and pinned me to the floor.”

The CO’s fingers squeeze his pen. But he makes no move to write. “That is assault, yes, but that doesn’t mean—”

“He was going to rape me.” Karen’s voice shakes a little, no matter how hard she tries to keep it steady.

“He said as much?”

She can all too easily recall Jackson’s voice, low in her ear, rough with anger.

“He said—”

“He said those exact words?” says the CO.

“Well, not exactly those words,” replies Karen angrily. “But I knew—”

“Unless there’s hard evidence, I’ll have to put this down as a fight,” says the CO. “Luckily for you, it’s pretty clear you weren’t the aggressor—“

She has to bite down on her own tongue for a moment. “Luckily?”

He flinches but his expression goes icy. He doesn’t want this to be true, Karen realizes. He doesn’t want it, so he’s going to ignore it. If he can believe this was just an attack, then it goes away.

Karen imagines fight it—she considers what to say, how to say it. She thinks of calling her lawyer and trying to bring some kind of justice to this place, and she feels… she suddenly feels the weight of the near-sleepless night. She is small and exhausted and feels like some kind of animal caught in a trap.

She meets the man’s eyes. His defenses are up, his mouth pressed thin. He probably considers himself a decent man, a good person. He’s neither.

“What happened after Castle killed Jackson?” he asks.

Karen looks down at her hands. Her left thumbnail is still stained that brown-red.

“Castle and I were attacked by two of Jackson’s friends. Castle fought them off—”

“Fought them off?” the CO says, skeptical. “He gave one man such severe head trauma that he may never wake up, and he broke the other’s neck.”

“They were attacking us,” Karen says, jaw clenched.

The CO makes a small note on his clipboard and Karen considers it a victory. “What happened after that?”

“Castle was injured and we were being chased so I dragged him into a closet,” Karen says. “Another few men dragged me out, but by then a CO threw tear gas into the hallway. You know the rest.” She doesn’t want to get into the details—the hands as they forcibly hauled her out of the closet, the pallor of Frank’s face, the sirens and the shouts as the guards sorted out who was injured and what had to be done.

The CO makes a few more notes, then says, “You won’t have to face any disciplinary action for this.”

She has to close her eyes and just breathe for a few moments. Don’t make a fuss, don’t make a fuss, don’t—

“And Castle?” she says.

He hesitates.

“Castle saved my life,” says Karen, as calmly as she can. She doesn’t want Frank being charged with more crimes because of her. “They were going to hurt me—it was self defense. I’ll testify if I have to.”

“No, no,” says the CO. “I don’t think that’s necessary. It’s pretty cut and dry. And if he survives, I’ll make sure that he doesn’t face more charges.”

If he survives.

If he survives.

“Is there any word on his condition?” she asks. Her voice shakes on a few syllables.

But the CO simply rises from his chair and says, “I’ll escort you back to your cell.”

She knows better than to ask again.

Instead, she follows him out of the infirmary. She barely notices the looks and glances that a few of the inmates send her way as she’s escorted through the prison, back to her cell block. The CO leaves her at the door to her room and murmurs a farewell as he strides away.

She half-expects to find the cell ransacked when she returns, but it looks the same as ever. Frank’s books are neatly stacked on one shelf, his family photo resting beside them. He must have put it there before he went looking for her.

Her throat goes a little tight.

He came looking for her. He must have realized something was wrong and he came for her—even after their fight.

There’s a stray dark hair on his pillow. She finds herself looking at it, unable to look away.

He came for her. That thought keeps returning, like an itch beneath her skin she cannot scratch. He came for her. 

She honestly can’t remember the last time anyone did that.

No—no, she can. It was Kevin, desperate and fierce and so determined to see her free of the drugs and the diner that he set a fire.

Kevin died for that.

And now Frank might, too.

It feels almost… inevitable, now that it’s happened. Karen Page doesn’t have loved ones; she has bodycounts. She feels like the eye of a hurricane, destroying everything in her wake, but remaining untouched all the while. Frank always seemed so invincible she could almost believe he would survive her—but now, she knows differently. She goes to sit on the bed, feels the familiar blankets.

She isn’t sure how long she sits there, but a footstep makes her look up.

Hodges stands at the doorway. His face is grave.

She isn’t sure what he’s heard, but she suspects that he knows.

Hodges’ gaze travels from her bandaged hand to her face. She doesn’t have a mirror; she doesn’t know how bad she looks.

“I have painkillers,” he says.

She shakes her head. “Thanks, but they gave me something.”

He nods.

For a few moments, there is silence.

Karen looks at him and she allows some of what she’s been feeling to show on her face.

“They have to tell us if he died, right?” she says.

Hodges just looks at her and she reads the answer in his silence.

She sleeps alone that night.

The bed is too big and very cold.

She doesn’t sleep very much; mostly, she curls in a tight ball while her cheek throbs with every heartbeat. Her right hand is stiff with bandages.

She lays there, hand curled around the thin blanket, and gazes into the dark. It isn’t even that she’s lonely—although she is. It is only now that Frank’s gone that she realizes how much she’s come to appreciate his presence beside her: the light rasp of his snores, the warmth of him, the knowledge that she had an ally, a friend. She is utterly alone again, and while she’s been alone for many years now, this solitude is a bitter one.

This isn’t just loneliness—it’s fury.

She hates this place. Hates herself for not being able to protect him. Hates the guards for insinuating that Karen led Jackson on. Hates Jackson for being a fucking prick. Hates the walls and the silence and the cold and—


The angry simmer that she’s tamped down for years churns in her blood, hot and unbearable. She wants to do something. To do anything.

When the morning comes, she doesn’t go to breakfast. She eats some of the jerky that Frank bought a few days ago, and then she goes some place she has never visited before.

There is a barbershop.

Or rather, what passes for a barbershop in a prison. The scissors have plastic numbers attached and the man working there looks like some of the truckers that would stop in the diner when Karen was a teenager. He has burly arms and tattoos and a scar through one gray brow. He regards Karen with something like wonder when she steps through the door.

“You in the wrong room, ma’am?” he says. There’s a bit of a southern drawl to his words.

She barely pays him any attention, though.

There is a chair and—and mirrors. Karen steps closer and sees her own reflection for the first time in months.

She’s caught glimpses in glass and pools of water in the showers, but those images were never this clear. Her hand comes up, as if to touch the woman staring back at her. She doesn’t recognize her.

This woman is hollow-cheeked and pale. Her skin is utterly colorless, her hair lank and eyes red with lack of sleep. The space between her collarbones seems too deep, the edges of her mouth worn thin.

And there is a ghastly bruise across her cheek. It’s a splash of bright reds and purples with just a touch of blue. The bruise blooms to the edge of her eye.

The woman in the mirror looks like some commercial about battered women. Karen wants to look away, to look anywhere else, but she keeps staring.

No—no she isn’t battered. She’s alive. She’s alive and the man who hurt her isn’t.

That’s all that matters.

But she can still feel Jackson’s fingers in her hair, pressing her to the floor. She can feel his knees digging into her thighs, feel his damp breaths against her cheek. She can still feel—

Because this is the one thing she didn’t tell the CO. Couldn’t tell him. To say it aloud would be to make it real.

When Jackson pinned her to the floor, she could feel his erection against her stomach. He’d been hard. Hurting Frank, hurting Karen—it had turned him on.

She’s glad he’s dead—and maybe that makes her a bad person, but she does—not—care.

“I need a haircut,” she says, and her voice comes out a little too flat.

She’s angry. And that anger is beginning to shine through the cracks.

The man, when Karen glances at him, looks a little spooked. “I’ve never,” he begins to say, then falters beneath her look. He must be three times her size, and yet he seems to quaver when she glares at him.

There’s a kind of power in this cold anger, in this uncaring.

“I can try, of course,” he says. “I mean, I—”

“Just give me the scissors,” she says.

He hesitates.

Her jaw tightens. “Come on,” she says. “They’re all labeled. You can tackle me if I try to run out with them. What am I going to do? Stab you?”

The man shakes his head a little. “‘Course not. I mean—of course you can.”

He looks at a loss for anything else to say, so he takes down one of the hair shears and gives it to her. It’s clean and sharp; she can see a little of her bruise in the reflection of the steel.

Jackson pinned her down with her hair.

That’s never going to happen again.

She takes hold of her long hair, pulls it taut and wraps it around her injured hand as best she can. Then she begins cutting.

With every snip, ever lock of hair that hits the floor, she walls off a piece of herself. Fear and longing and loneliness—it all has to go. She cuts and cuts and cuts because she can. Because this is the only way she can change herself, can protect herself. She cuts away the hair that was her pride and joy, that made her feel beautiful when few other things did. She cuts and when she’s finished, she looks into the mirror again.

The hair barely brushes her chin. It’s a little uneven, a little jagged. Good—maybe that’ll make fewer men want her. And even if it changes little else, it’ll make her more difficult to seize. She shakes her head; a few stray hairs fall to the floor.

Frank isn’t here.

He may never be here again.

She’s going to have to take care of herself. And she will. She always has.

“Thanks,” she says, setting the scissors on the chair and striding out of the room.

Two days pass. Then three—and four.

In that time, Karen doesn’t shower. It simply isn’t safe. She goes back to the bucket and washcloth. Her meals are spent with Hodges and Lucero and her free time in her own cell. She reads; she works out with only the floor and wall; she rations what little food stores she has left; she writes a letter to her father and crumples it up. She takes extra shifts in the commissary.

She keeps herself busy. She has to be busy.

Lucero and Hodges seem to be keeping an eye on her. Lucero stops by at least three times a day to check in—of course, he couches his concern with jokes and requests for her to play poker with him. Hodges walks her to the commissary, using the excuse that he needs to buy things and doesn’t trust the other inmates to find them for him. They’re worried, she knows. And while part of her is glad for them, another part of her chafes at their concern. She doesn’t want to need it, even if she does. She hates that she needs it. So she practices after the lights go out, after the doors to the cells are locked and everyone is supposed to be asleep. She practices punching, throwing, escaping. It’s more difficult with her bandaged hand and no partner, but she tries.

And all the while, she tries not to think about Frank. She tries not to think about what he might say when he sees her working out: how he would tell her to push harder, to get a few more sit-ups in. She tries not to think about the sound of him washing his face in the morning or how he would fix her a cup of coffee. She doesn’t think about the soft, familiar footfalls when he would walk back to their room after his laundry shift or his grunts when he would be amused by Lucero.

She tries not to think about him.

She fails every time.


Seven days after Frank is stabbed, Karen writes him a eulogy.

He’s dead. He has to be dead.

And fuck, that’s hard to accept, but she needs to.

She holds a pencil and a scrap of paper. And she realizes how little she actually knows about Frank Castle.

Father. Husband. Soldier.

What else does she know about him?

Coffee addict, she thinks. Liked dogs. Preferred sleeping on his side. Dry sense of humor. Enjoyed reading.

She glances at his family picture. She has kept it safely tucked between the pages of a book, save for when she tugs it out and gazes down at the smiling faces. They’re a comfort, somehow. A reminder that there was a life for him before this prison, that other people cared about him, too.

Because she does care about him. And it’s not just because he kept her safe and gave her food and made her smile.

Her pencil moves across the paper.

He was a good man, she writes. And she wonders if there’s anyone else alive who would believe it.


Eight days after Frank is gone, the rest of the prison seems to finally declare Frank dead.

Karen knows this, because apparently someone’s declared open season on her. Two men leer at her in the rec room and ask if she’s lonely. Another one grabs his crotch in front of her as she walks to the mess hall. Another simply smiles.

It isn’t all of the inmates. There are some that look uncomfortable with it, that glance away when their fellows begin clicking their tongues or gesture at her.

But they stay silent.

Well, most of them.

Then there’s Lucero—dear Lucero, who snarls at a couple of guys when they call out to Karen in Spanish. Lucero rattles off a long string of rather creative curses that Karen, with her two-year Spanish college course under her belt, can only half understand.

“You don’t have to do that,” she says quietly, as they walk into the mess hall. “Seriously, don’t draw attention on my behalf.”

Lucero bristles. “What? You think I’m just gonna stand by and let them call you a—”

“I know what they called me.” She understands enough of the language to get that much.

Lucero’s mouth tightens. “They’re assholes. And the ones who don’t say anything are assholes, too. Like none of them got sisters or mothers or wives. Fucking pricks.”

His anger makes her feel a little better, but she worries for him. Lucero is barely out of his teens; he’s more a kid brother than anything else. And while he’s got a foot of height on her, he’s lanky and doesn’t look all that intimidating. There are people who won’t hesitate to hurt him to get at her—and she doesn’t want any more human shields between herself and those bastards.

They get their lunch and sit down. Karen keeps her gaze on her food, but she can hear the rumblings all around them. There’s an energy, a visceral hunger. She can feel eyes on her back, even as she refuses to look up.

Shit. It hasn’t even been two weeks and already the vultures are circling.

She considers her options as she eats tasteless mashed potatoes. At least the margarine adds a little salt.

She could go to Dutton. That is her first thought—and she hates that it’s her first one. Dutton would protect her, and from the few interactions she’s had with the man, he would keep her safe. He’d do so more to protect his own reputation than out of any concern for her, but the end result would still be the same: no one would dare touch her. Well, no one except for Dutton. She has no illusions about how that deal would go; she’d be trading sex for relative safety. And while it wouldn’t be as brutal as what Jackson planned to do to her, it would be just as unwanted.

She could go to the COs. But that thought has little hope to it.

She is contemplating how she might get put in solitary confinement when one of the men finally approaches her. It’s one of the white supremacist guys—and he leans across the table as if Lucero isn’t there. “Hey, sweetheart,” he says, eyes traveling across Karen. “You look as though you could use some company.”

She glares at him. “I’ve got company.”

The man sneers. “I mean—”

“I know what you mean, and the answer is ‘no,’” she says, voice hard.

His face hardens. He reaches for Karen and she braces herself, ready to strike back.

And then a shadow falls across her and a resonant voice says, “I wouldn’t do that.”

The man glances up, his face still taut with anger. “Fuck off, you—”

Karen turns in time to see the new man. He’s black, with a shaved head and goatee, and there’s a pleasant enough smile on his face. He reaches over and—

The new man just—picks—him—up. The way a grown cat would lift a kitten.

The asshole hangs in midair, thrashing about. The other man regards him with distaste. “Language,” he says calmly. Then he tosses the man away. He flies like a frisbee, farther than he should. The man tumbles, then staggers to his feet. He regards the newcomer with a mixture of fury and fear and hastens away.

The newcomer gestures toward the open spot beside Hodges. “You mind if I sit here?”

Hodges makes a show of clearing space. “Sit down, son.”

“Thank you.” The man sits and nods at Karen and Lucero.

Finally, Karen manages to find her voice. “Language?” she repeats, stuck on that one word.

The man nods. “I don’t like profanity.”

Unbidden, a laugh breaks free of her. It’s a bitter little sound, but it’s still a laugh. “You’re going to have a hard time here, then.”

He gives her a half-smile. “I think I’ll manage. I’m Cage.”

Hodges provides the introductions with all of the gentlemanly charm of a host welcoming a new guest. Karen takes the opportunity to watch him: he’s tall, well-muscled, and good-looking. He holds himself carefully, and something about his stance reminds her a little of—well, of Frank. Maybe it’s how he eyes the room or the straightness of his shoulders.

“You’re new?” asks Lucero, eyeing Cage’s white jumpsuit.

“Never been here before,” says Cage. “Not my first time inside, though.” He eats a mouthful of mashed potato, swallows, then adds, “Didn’t miss the food.”

Lucero laughs, seemingly delighted with their new friend. He begins peppering Cage with questions about what’s been happening on the outside, and Cage answers in a few careful monosyllables. He isn’t rude—quite the contrary. But nor does he give much of himself to the conversation. Karen remains quiet, watching the tables around them.

When they rise, food eaten and trays placed on the rack, Karen finds herself walking beside Cage. He gazes down at her, but his attention isn’t one of interest. Rather he seems… concerned, if Karen had to put a word to it. He frowns at Karen. “Gotta say,” he murmurs, as they walk out of the hall, “I’ve seen a lot of things happen behind bars, but a co-ed prison is new.”

“It isn’t,” Karen says curtly. “It’s just me.”

He nods. “That so? Well.” He exhales. “What kind of trouble are you in?”

She narrows her eyes. “Why would you care?” A bit of that cold anger flares within her. “You think I couldn’t handle that prick in the mess?”

She knows the bruise on her face is still a beacon, still a remnant of the last time that someone attacked her. It feels like a mark of shame, a visible sign that she failed—not only herself but Frank, too.

“I think,” says Cage, “you shouldn’t have too.”

That diffuses her anger as swiftly as it arrived. She gazes at him like wants to unravel him and all of his strange contradictions. Big, but not big enough to pick up a man one-handed. Evidently comfortable in prison, but uncomfortable with cursing.

“Why do you care?” she asks again.

He shrugs. “I’ve never been all that good at just standing by and watching bad things happen to people.”

She has to look away; her throat aches. “That’s a good way to get hurt.”

He smiles at her and it’s an odd little smile—a touch of bitterness edging the humor. “It’s hard to hurt me.”

“Tough guy?” she says skeptically.

That smile widens. “You could say that. Listen,” he says. “I’m not going to make any assumptions. You look like you could handle yourself. But if you need anyone else tossed across a room, I could always use the workout.”

She gives his bicep a look. The muscle is straining against the jumpsuit. “Yeah, you clearly need to work out more.”

“I’ll see you around, Page. I’m in cell block D. Unit four.” He turns to walk away and Karen hesitates. For a few moments, she wants to let him. But some part of her speaks up, and she says, “How’d you end up in here?”

He pauses mid-step, glancing over one massive shoulder at her. His face is grave but all of the bitterness has vanished. “I tried to do the right thing,” he says simply.

She believes him.

This isn’t what she had with Frank—not at all. This isn’t close friendship or an ally she can rely upon or someone that she is all that sure she can trust. But Cage, whoever he is, isn’t an asshole. And that’s something.

“Okay,” she says quietly. Then a bit louder, “I’m in unit three, in case you need someone to show you around.”

The edge of his mouth lifts. “Thanks, Page. I’ll see you.”

She does.

She sees him in the rec room a few times; she sees him at meals because he seems to have bonded with Hodges; she sees him in the hallways and at the commissary. Strangely enough, he doesn’t buy coffee. That’s usually everyone’s first purchase. She sees him when he’s headed to the yard to work out—which is when she sees someone try to kill him.

Cage has enemies, it seems. One of them tries to use a crowded hallway as cover for a murder. There’s a glimmer of steel in the man’s hand, and Karen only sees it because she has taken to looking for threats everywhere—and her heartbeat hammers against her ribs. She opens her mouth to call out a warning, but before she can say a word, the man shoves what looks like a screwdriver into Cage’s back.

The metal breaks. Bends in two, then falls from the hilt.

The man stands there, gaping and open-mouthed, the broken shiv, and then Cage turns to face him. He looks more… disappointed than anything else. “Really?” he says.

The man babbles something, but Cage doesn’t hit him. He just glares at the other man until he backs off, leaving the broken screwdriver on the floor. Cage steps over the metal and down the hallway, toward Karen. She is frozen, still with surprise, and unsure what to say.

“I thought someone might have learned by now,” he says, sounding a little exasperated. He glances at Karen. “You okay? You look a bit…”

She finally manages to find her voice. “You’re one of them.”

“One?” he asks.

She searches for the right term. “People—with abilities.”

He laughs. “Nice way of putting it. I usually just go with ‘lab rat.’”

“Is that what you were?” she asks.

He shrugs. “Not here. Down south—it happened years back. It’s where I’ll be headed again, once they can figure out transportation. This is just a pit stop for me.”

“Oh,” she says. So he won’t be a permanent resident.

“You sound almost disappointed,” he says.

“Well,” she says, “Lucero needs more friends.”

“And you?” he asks. “You in need of friends?”

She glances away. She can’t be sure of her expression, but her face feels cold. “I had a friend.”

“Yeah?” Cage’s voice is quiet, careful. “Heard something about that. Some of the guys in here were talking. Not much else to do. Said that you had a… keeper.”

“A friend,” she says firmly. “He—he got hurt helping me.”

“That so?” Cage stops and Karen realizes they’ve come to a halt at her cell. She didn’t even realize they were walking down the right hallway. “Is he coming back?”

She glances at the cell—at the made bed and shelves full of things that aren’t hers. But the blankets have been washed and his clothes are gone and the place doesn’t smell like him anymore. She’s losing him, bit by bit.

“I don’t think so,” she says softly.

Cage makes a sound low in his throat. It sounds thoughtful and grumbling all at the same time. “Well. Remember what I said. You need someone tossed across a room, let me know.”

“Why?” she says, too worn to be anything but blunt. “What are you getting out of this? Because if you’re looking for—”

“Nothing like that,” he says quickly. “I’m not—I mean. You’re an attractive woman, but—”

She snorts. With her ragged hair and bruised face and gaunt appearance, she has never felt less attractive. At this point, though, she doesn’t really care. She has other worries than her appearance. But it’s still a little amusing to watch Cage look worried he’s given offense. And somehow, that’s the thing that makes her think she can trust him. He’s some kind of super-powered convict who could probably pick her up one-handed, and he’s worried that he’s insulted her.

“It’s fine,” she says.

“I’ve got—I promised someone a cup of coffee,” says Cage. “For when I’m out again.”

Ah. He’s got someone. That makes sense—he’s a good-looking man. And he’s got a presence, as much as he tries to hide it. There’s a confidence in how he moves, and that kind of thing is attractive.

“You play cards?” she asks on impulse.

He blinks. “Didn’t think we were supposed to have cash in here.”

“We don’t,” Karen says. “We play poker for ramen flavor packets. Hodges keeps winning because Lucero has no poker face, but sometimes we end up playing cribbage and I can usually beat him at that.”

Cage smiles. “Never much of a poker man myself, but sure. Let me know.”

 She learns a few things about him over the next few days: his first name is Luke; he worked as a bartender and a custodian; he used to be in Seagate Penn down in Georgia; he really does hate coffee; he really doesn’t swear; and, he seems like a pretty decent guy. Karen ends up liking him, despite herself. He’s not overly talkative, but he’s polite, observant, and manages to beat Hodges at a game of poker. Lucero crows about the victory as if it were his own, and even Karen has to laugh at Hodges’ incredulity over having his reign finally toppled.

Luke Cage isn’t Frank Castle—and he won’t ever be. But it’s still nice to have someone else around. It’s nice to have a sort-of friend, particularly one whom the other inmates clearly fear. News of the attack on Cage flies through the prison like wildfire, and soon there are whispers about the unbeatable man. A few people whisper that maybe he’s here to dethrone Dutton but Cage has no interest in prison politics. He keeps his head down, and after a few days, the rumors die down a little. But even so, once Karen is glimpsed a few times in Cage’s presence, quite a few of them back off. The population seems to regard Cage as Karen’s new ‘keeper,’ to use his word for it. And as much as that infuriates her, she is a little glad not to have to worry every moment of the day.

It’s two weeks after Frank is gone that she offers Cage a book. She’s heard him asking about a library—the library that does not exist, of course.

“I’ve got some books, if you want to borrow one,” she says. “Hodges has a small library, too.”

Cage perks up. “Really?”

“I’ll bring you something this afternoon,” she says. “After my shift at the commissary.”

He gives her a tired, honest kind of smile. “Thank you.”

She meets him in the rec room and Cage seems grateful to peruse through the small book collection. They end up on the couch as Cage flips through pages. Karen picks up one of them and opens it.

“You read a lot, Page?” asks Cage.

She strokes her fingers across the paper. “It’s—it’s a distraction.”

“That it is,” he says. “I did a lot of reading my first time inside. Never expected to be back here, not after…” His voice trails off, and his chin snaps up. Karen sees him looking toward the doorway and her heart falls. It must be some new threat, someone come to challenge him or—

She turns her head and sees what he does.

Frank Castle stands in the doorway.

Her heart seems to falter for a few beats.

He looks terrible—his skin is slate-gray and his stubble too long. His cheeks are gaunt and his hands are fisted.

She stands abruptly, barely noticing when the book falls. “Frank,” she breathes.

He’s alive. He’s alive. Seeing him there feels like taking her first full breath of air in days. She’s moving before she realizes, and then she is standing in front of him, hands reaching out. She wants to touch him, to be sure he’s real, but she doesn’t want to hurt him.

Then she catches a glimpse of the look on his face—his expression is cracked wide open, his dark eyes on her like she’s the only thing he can see. His index finger twitches against his thigh, and it’s that little motion, that familiar tell, that makes her step forward and pull him close. For the briefest moment, he stiffens. Then he’s hugging her back. She can feel his forehead against her shoulder, his breaths soft against her collarbone and his fingers tight between her shoulder blades. He’s warm and the planes of his body are familiar in a way she didn’t expect; she’s missed him so much she couldn’t even truly feel the pain of it until this moment. She missed his wry humor and his sleeping beside her and his steady presence.

Something tight unwinds within her and for the first time in two weeks, she feels... safe. Which is stupid, she knows she isn’t safe; this place isn’t safe—but he is. He is safe, in every sense of the word. 

“Jesus Christ,” Karen whispers. She can smell the sharp, industrial detergent on his clean jumpsuit. “You’re okay. I didn’t know if you were alive.”

She expects him to pull away, but he doesn’t. Rather, his grip seems to tighten on her.

“They didn’t tell you?” His voice rumbles through her.

“No.” She has to let go. She should let go. She forces her fingers to release him, one at a time, then she steps back. He was stabbed two weeks ago; she probably shouldn’t be throwing herself into his arms.

But god, she missed him.

When she meets his eyes a second time, he’s recovered a bit of his composure. His gaze hardens when it falls on her face, and she knows he must be seeing the remnants of the bruise Jackson left behind. “Are you okay?” he asks quietly.

“I’m fine,” she says. She has to blink a few times; his concern is too close to the surface, and it is making her feel as if they are in that closet again, and he’s worried about her while he bleeds out. The memory is still too raw. She forces her voice to lighten. “We should get you back to our cell. I don’t even know how you managed to get out of the infirmary like this. You look like shit, Frank.”

He laughs. It’s a good sound, and another small bit of tension in Karen’s chest releases. He’s alive. He’s alive and well enough to laugh.

She looks over her shoulder. Cage is watching from the couch; his shoulders are taut and his expression watchful, but he makes no move toward them. “Hey,” Karen says. “I’m going to take him back to our cell. You mind bringing the books by later?”

Cage rises from his seat and walks toward them. There’s nothing threatening about the approach but Frank reacts at once, stepping forward and putting Karen behind him. She finds herself staring at the short, bristly hairs at the back of his head. She lets out a huff of air, realizing what he must be thinking. “Frank, he’s fine. This is—”

“Cage.” Luke Cage regards Frank with a careful look. Again, there’s no aggression to it, but Frank’s back remains tense. “Luke Cage.” He gives a respectful nod. “Nice to meet you.”

Frank doesn’t relax, not a bit.

“I’ll talk to you later, Luke,” she says, using his first name for the first time. Maybe that’ll reassure Frank. “Dinner?”

“Of course.” Cage takes a step back, his hands loose at his sides. “Thank you for the books.”

Karen tugs on Frank’s wrist and he falls into step with her, out of the rec room and into the hallway. It’s only when they’re back in the cell that Frank seems to take a full breath. He glances around, taking in the surroundings, then goes to sit on the bed. He looks exhausted.

“Hey,” she says. “You want something to drink? I can—” She begins to step away, to grab him a cup of water, but Frank shakes his head.

“I’m all right,” he says quietly. “Just a little tired.”

She stands there, unsure of what to do, awkwardness suddenly filling the empty places between them. She’s missed him so much and now that he’s here, she has no idea what to say.

No, she does. She’s been thinking it for two weeks.

“I’m sorry,” she says.

He looks at her sharply. “What?”

“I’m sorry,” she repeats. “For getting angry at you, for—for leaving the cell and making you come after me. For not throwing the knife harder, so maybe Jackson couldn’t have gotten ahold of it. For not—”

“Hey,” he says, and then his big hand is around her wrist and he is tugging her down toward the bed. She sits beside him, her knee brushing his, unable to meet his eyes. “Hey,” he says again. “No—just no. What happened—that was on me, not you. You got that?”

She shakes her head. “Frank—”

“No,” he says. “I should have said something from the start, when I realized you thought my family were still alive. I did it because—because honestly, it was nice. You talking about them like they were alive, it made them… it made them feel more real, somehow. And the moment anyone finds out, they’re never mentioned again. It was a selfish mistake on my part.”

“They are real,” Karen says. “They’re still part of you, I get that. And if you ever want to talk about them—”

“Yeah, I know.” He takes in another breath. “I should be the one apologizing. I let myself get caught up in my own head, left you on your own and you got hurt—”

“You’re not my keeper, Frank,” she says.

“I’m not,” he says, “but I said I’d keep you safe. I meant it and—and I know I fucked it up.”

“You didn’t fuck anything up,” she says softly.

His thumb hovers over her cheek—not quite touching. “Yeah. I did.”

She looks down and his fingers brush the ragged fringe of her hair.

For a few moments, neither says a word. Then Frank says, “After I—after I blacked out. What happened?” There’s an edge to every word, as if speaking them aloud is painful.

She looks down at her own hands, clasped in her lap. “You were bleeding. I saw you pass out and I knew I had to put more pressure on the wound if you were going to live, but that would’ve meant letting go of the door. I—I should’ve just helped you, I know that, and God, I’m so sorry that I even hesitated, but—”

“No,” he says. “You were protecting yourself. I’d never blame you for that.”

“You should,” she says. “You look like death warmed over, Frank. Then the COs came into the hallway, threw some kind of tear gas to break up the crowds. Dragged us both out. I saw them take you away on a gurney and that’s the last I saw of you.”

Frank exhales hard. “And the hair?”

She reaches up, touches a strand of her shorter hair. “I—that’s how he grabbed me. I just… I didn’t want it to happen again.”

She forces herself to meet his gaze, unsure of what she will see. His dark eyes are warm, focused on her. “Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, I get that.” He nods, as if in approval. “Looks good.”

She shakes her head. “Yeah, I’m sure I look fantastic.”

He laughs, winces.

“Come on,” she says. “You should lie down a little before dinner.”

“Only if you tell me what happened during the last two weeks,” he says. But even as he talks, he begins pulling off his shoes. 

“Deal,” she agrees and stands to make a cup of coffee. Her hands shake a little as she picks up the bag, but she’s smiling. 

Chapter Text

The afternoon is spent in relative peace. Frank ends up on the bed, per Karen’s orders, while she sits on the floor. Her legs are curled beneath her, her head tipped slightly forward so that her shorter hair brushes her chin. He can’t stop looking at her; he spent two weeks imagining every terrible way she could be hurt, and now that she’s sitting only a few feet away—it feels like being able to breathe for the first time in fifteen days. He’s relaxed with her, and it’s only now he realizes that it’s the first time he’s felt truly comfortable with anyone since he last spoke with Curtis.

She tells him about the time he missed while he was in the infirmary—the murmurs, the glances, and then Cage’s arrival. For all that Frank doesn’t trust the other man, he is glad that Cage’s presence drove off some of the scavengers. Then she asks how his time in the infirmary went, and he has to shrug. “I spent two weeks in a hospital room being pumped full of antibiotics and having bandages changed for the first few days. Wasn’t exactly riveting.”

He can see the clouds gathering behind her eyes, that stormy anger that seems wholly directed at herself. It’s guilt—and it’s misplaced. “I’m sorr—”

“Don’t,” he tells her firmly. “I knew what I was doing.”

She doesn’t appear reassured. Because she is the kind of person who takes too much on her shoulders; he’s seen the same look on Curtis’s face, on the faces of those men he served with who were truly decent people. They were rarer than he cares to admit—he could count all of them on one hand. He certainly isn’t one.

“There’s one other thing I haven’t told you,” she says quietly. “Something I’ve never told anyone.”

He straightens, and she can see him trying to focus on her, despite his exhaustion. “Yeah?”

She hesitates. “I probably should have told you—to let you know what you were getting into when you got involved.”

“Karen,” he says. “Just tell me.”

“I made a copy,” she says. “Of—of the files that I saw at Union Allied. I saved them to a flash drive.”

He blinks. Of all the things he might have expected her to say, this wasn’t on the list. He has to recall the details of why she was brought here, and through his exhaustion it takes a few moments. “They know about this?”

“Probably,” she admits. “They’d have some kind of cyber security or cameras. I hid the flash drive, though, and I’m pretty sure they haven’t found it.” She looks at him. “It’s in a vent in my bathroom at my apartment. I hid it deep enough that even someone who glanced in wouldn’t see it.”

“Shit,” he says softly. “That’s why—that’s why they didn’t just kill you outright, did they? Because they were worried you’d told someone. That you’d arranged it so if you died, those files got published. But if they could make it look like it wasn’t their doing, like you’d just been shipped to the wrong prison and someone here killed you…” The color drains from his face. “…If the Punisher had killed you, then no one could blame Union Allied. If you did have someone waiting with the files, they wouldn’t be leaked out of revenge. This was why they wanted me to be your goddamn executioner.” Anger flares hot within him—not at her, but at the situation. At those fuckers who want her dead, and those who think he would kill her.

“They did try to kill me outright,” she says. “Before I met you. Once—I think, after that, maybe someone thought it would be too suspicious to try again.”

His heart throbs in his chest. “How?”

She looks down at her own hands. “A guard at the jail—before I was sentenced, before I came here. He snuck into my cell at night, wrapped a sheet around my neck, tried to strangle me. I think he wanted to make it look like suicide.”

“Fuck.” He can see it all too easily: heavy-knuckled hands gripping a white sheet in the dim light of a jail cell. Karen, sleeping by herself. It makes Frank want to snarl, to hit something. “How’d you get away?”

“I fought back and scratched his eye,” she says. “I got lucky. When he had to let go, I started screaming. I think, after that, it would have looked too obvious if they’d tried again. Once, they could pass off as a corrupt guard. Twice would have been a pattern. So they sent me here.” She meets his eye. “The files—it’s everything I could find. I’m sure in the right hands, they could unravel where the money was going. My plan was to try and get them back when I get out… years from now. That way I could get some kind of justice for Daniel.

“I’m telling you because if something happens again,” she says, “if someone does manage to kill me—”


“If someone does manage it,” she says, pushing through his protest, “then I want someone else to know about the files’ location. Someone else has to know, in case I’m not around.”

He bites back what he wants to say.

He can’t promise to keep her safe; he’s proven that he isn’t infallible. But he can promise her this—

“Doesn’t matter if I know about those files,” he says quietly. “Only way Union Allied gets to you is if they kill me first.”

Something like panic flares in the back of her eyes. It’s the same panic he remembers from the closet: half-fear and half-remorse. “Frank—” She bites at her lower lip. “I should never have brought you into this.”

“You didn’t,” he says.

She looks at him like she’s scared, but not for herself. For him. “You already got hurt once. You shouldn’t have to risk everything like this. I’m not—“ she says, then goes quiet.

Worth it.

He hears the words she doesn’t say aloud.

She doesn’t understand what she is to him—and maybe he doesn’t fully understand either. She stands somewhere between the line of ‘close friend’ and ‘moral responsibility’ and he isn’t sure what side she falls upon. But either way, as long as he’s alive, this matters to him. She matters to him. She’s smart and willful and wants to do the right thing, and he knows how rare that is. He’s done enough shady things in his life—but this mission is free of all that. There are no moral quandaries when it comes to keeping her alive; it’s simply the right thing to do.

Several emotions flash across her face in quick succession. He can guess what she’s thinking.

“Karen, no,” he says. “No. You go to the COs now, demand your own room, and it won’t change anything.”

“It might keep you alive,” she says.

Dying has never scared him. Even before, when he was overseas, it wasn’t the prospect of death that truly frightened him. It was not seeing his family, it was letting down his squad, it was watching his friends get hurt. And after—after he lost everything, death became his constant companion. Walking into that dark was a fucking temptation at the worst of times. He considered it—he hates to admit it, even to himself, but he considered it. When he realized he was trapped behind these walls, it might have been easier, faster, to let one of the gangs just end him. Allow the knife to slide in or the blows to land. It was sheer stubbornness that kept him alive—and the knowledge that Curtis had fought so hard to keep him that way. He couldn’t succumb after Curtis poured weeks of sleepless nights into keeping Frank off of death row. But obligation could only do so much, and while Frank was alive, he was never really living.

And then she showed up. And she made things matter again.

She won’t ever understand how much he owes to her for that.

“It’s worth it,” he says, and leaves things at that.

There are three people waiting for Frank and Karen in the mess hall.

Lucero jumps up immediately and rushes forward. Frank expects the hug, manages to brace for it so the kid doesn’t accidentally poke anything he shouldn’t. Lucero hangs on tight for a few moments, then releases him. He’s grinning from ear to ear, looking as delighted as if he’s suddenly been pardoned. “You,” he says, “are one tough son of a bi—bishop,” he adds, with a glance over his shoulder.

Sure enough, the newcomer is sitting there. Cage is beside Hodges, looking as calm and watchful as ever.

Frank knows a threat when he sees one—and this man definitely qualifies. He’s served, although in what capacity, Frank doesn’t know. But Cage is no civilian… and the last ex-soldier Frank met in this place shoved a shiv up between his ribs.

Cage nods a greeting. “Hey.”

Frank nods back. He settles on the other side of the table, Karen beside him. “Hi, Luke.”

“Heard you’ve doing time in the infirmary,” says Cage to Frank.

Frank can’t tell if it’s a simple observation or Cage implying that Frank’s weakened at the moment. “You know who I am, then.”

“I know who you are,” agrees Cage. “Some of the men here told me your name. Had a buddy in Bravo who worked with you a couple of times. Said you were the best damn sniper he ever saw but it was worth a transfer to stop listening to you torment a guitar.”

Frank blinks. A few times.

This man isn’t talking about the Punisher, he’s referring to Lieutenant Frank Castle—and it’s been a hell of a long time since Frank was that man. It takes a few moments for his brain to switch tracks. “Who’d you serve with?” he says quietly. He was right about Cage being ex-military, at least.

Cage’s expression remains pleasantly neutral. “Third recon.”

Shit. There are under a thousand marine force recon in the world—running into another one in this hellhole is a hell of a coincidence.

“Different name, then,” Luke says, seeing Frank’s surprise. “Different man. Different life. Think you know something about that.”

“I do,” Frank agrees, after a moment. He shifts, trying to keep his stance steady. Injured or no, he isn’t going to show weakness.

Karen is watching this conversation with a small smile on her mouth, like she’s pleased by the two of them talking. She likes Cage, he realizes. Her posture’s relaxed, her smile easy.

Well. He trusts her instincts.

Lucero asks Cage about some restaurant in Harlem, and the two begin a pleasant enough conversation. Frank half-listens, mostly keeping an eye on their surroundings. The tables don’t seem more aggressive than normal, but Frank is aware of how Jackson’s death might change things. Jackson wasn’t one of the Dutton’s inner circle, but he still occasionally worked for the other man. That Dutton hasn’t retaliated by going after Karen is one small relief; at least Dutton has shown some restraint there. But he could still make a move on Frank—send someone with a smile on their face and a knife up their sleeve.

After dinner, he and Karen return to their cell. He doesn’t have the energy to do more than recline back on the bed. He’s exhausted, even if he won’t utter those words aloud, and Karen must see it because she picks up a book and decides to stay in. He’s grateful for that—if she’d gone to the rec room with Lucero or Hodges, he’d have felt obligated to go with her. They relax on their narrow bed. There isn’t any other place to sit in their cell, not comfortably. So Karen ends up with her back to the wall, book cradled between her thighs, while Frank dozes beside her. He doesn’t so much sleep as rest—he needs it. Blood loss takes a few weeks to recover from.

Her fingers stroke across the short hair at the back of his head; it’s a light touch. It startles him, not so much the touch so much as how he reacts to it—every muscle in his body clenches up; a shiver runs across his skin, starting at the nape of his neck and working its way downward.

“Sorry,” she says, pulling her hand away. “I just—sorry.”

There is something about physical contact. He hasn’t let himself feel the need for it—not for years. But now, it’s like taking a sip of water and having the bottle knocked out of his hands; all he can think about his how much his body craves it. And hell, she probably does, too. For months, she’s been locked in a place where any touch has been a threatening one.

“Don’t have to be,” he says, a little hoarsely. “Sorry, I mean.” It takes every ounce of courage in his body to say the next words. “Felt nice.”

It is a dangerous confession in a place like this. Softness is the first thing to be ground out of inmates—and Frank had very little left to him, anyways. To be soft is to invite a knife.

But this is just a simple touch, and surely that is safe, right?

Her hand is slower, this time. More tentative, now that she realizes what she’s doing. Her fingers move across the buzzed hair at the back of his head. He almost shudders with the pleasure of it. It isn’t even sexual—it’s just a brush of fingers back and forth, the way someone might run their fingers along the back of a soft sweater or across a dog’s cheek. As if she needs something to touch as much as he needs the touch itself.

She grows a little bolder; her fingers comb through the longer hair atop his head, toying with a few strands. Frank closes his eyes, his breaths evening out. He can’t remember anything feeling quite so good as the light rake of her nails against his scalp, and it lulls him into true sleep.

The next day, Frank slips out of bed early to take stock of their cell. Karen hasn’t been showering; that old bucket is back and just the sight of it makes his back teeth grind together. Their small store of commissary food is gone. Two of the books are missing, but Karen says she gave them to Cage to borrow.

First things first. He goes to the commissary—luckily, it’s a new month which means his account is full up. He knows how lucky he is compared to other inmates; he still has money. He uses it to purchase a good amount of food, coffee, and finally, tampons. Because the commissary has them, and he wouldn’t put it past some of the other inmates to buy them out to fuck with Karen.

He is carrying the supplies back to his cell when he sees Cage.

The other man nods at him. “Hey.” His voice is careful and neutral, but Frank tenses up. Karen told him about this man, about what he can do. If he is one of those people with abilities, then Frank can’t win a fight against him. But it doesn’t mean he wouldn’t try, if Cage steps over the line. For all that Karen is comfortable with this man, Frank isn’t so quick to consider someone a friend.

“Cage,” Frank says.

Cage glances at the supplies tucked under Frank’s arm. “Celebrating your freedom with a little shopping?”

“Picking up what’s needed,” Frank replies.

Cage nods, eyes falling on the box of tampons. “Ah.” He straightens a little. “I saw her first day I got in,” he says. There’s no need to explain who he means. “Bit of a shock, I’ve got to say. Someone was hassling her in the mess. I took issue with that.”

“Thank you,” Frank says and means it.

Something in his voice makes Cage look at him sharply. “She talked about you, a little. It’s how I knew who you were.” His lips press together. “Only reason I didn’t have an issue with you when you first walked in, actually. I know who you are. I know what you’ve done, and the only reason we didn’t cross paths was because you stayed out of Harlem. And the way the other men tell it, nearly as soon as Page arrived here, you started keeping her like a pet.”

Frank opens his mouth to protest.

“The way she tells it, though,” Luke continues, “you saved her life.”

It’s the other way around, but Cage doesn’t need to know that.

“We’re not going to have a problem, are we?” Frank asks. Better to know now.

“Naw,” says Luke. “Out there, we’d have problems.” He gives Frank an even look. “You killed a lot of people.”

“Gang members,” Frank says flatly. “Violent ones.”

“Yeah, I heard that, too.” Cage doesn’t seem fazed. “But a lot of those guys got into the life because they didn’t have the kind of options you or me did.”

“They still made the choice,” Frank says, “to kill, to rape. You saying they’re just misunderstood?”

Cage lets out a heavy breath. “No. And we’re not going to settle this here, I know that. We’ve got a difference of philosophy. And if we met on the street, I’d probably have broken a few of your bones. But in here, you’ve got people depending on you. I can respect that. Truth is, I’m probably only going to be here a little bit long before I’m transferred. And I’ll sleep better at night knowing that Page and Lucero have someone looking out for them.”

Cage walks away and Frank watches him go before returning to his own cell.

Karen is awake and siting on the edge of the bed.

“Good morning.” She runs a hand through her short hair, trying to brush out a few small snarls. “You woke up early.”

“Wanted to get a few errands done before everyone else woke up.” He tosses her a candy bar and she catches it midair. She likes the ones with nuts and caramel, he’s noticed. Then he flashes the box of tampons at her before setting it on the lower shelf.

“You are by far the best roommate I’ve ever had,” she says, sounding utterly relieved. “If my—uh, cycle turns out to be normal again, I’m going to need those pretty soon. Thank you.”

“No problem,” he says and means it. “Not the first time I’ve been sent on that particular errand.” He straightens. “You want to hit the showers while everyone’s at breakfast?”

There is a moment of quiet, and he watches her face carefully, trying to gauge every flicker of emotion across her face. He catches the surprise, then the hesitation. He can guess what she’s thinking.

“Hey,” he says, “I may not be up for running a marathon, but I can do this.”

She lets out a shaky breath. “I just… you’re still healing.”

“I’ll heal better once I don’t smell like the infirmary.” He nods at her. “Come on.” He can’t promise her nothing will happen, because he can’t be sure of that. But he can promise her this. “We’ll be quick.”

She rises from the bed, pulling her dry towel off of the line. It feels like a small victory, but a victory nonetheless.

He’s right that the shower rooms are nearly deserted. It’s still early and those who are early risers usually head to the yard for a workout before breakfast. There’s only a few of the older lifers, who are always up early, changing out of their jumpsuits. Karen pulls off her own clothes, sliding her shower shoes on. She seems a little more at ease now that their course has been chosen, but she does keep glancing around. Looking for threats.

Frank wraps a towel around his waist, nodding to one of the older men. He’s about to ask if Karen is ready to go into the showers when a light touch brushes against his chest.

Her fingers rest against the healing scar. It’s a gentle touch, a feather-light brush of her thumb across the puckered edges where they sewed him shut. The scar will smooth out in time, but right now it’s an ugly red mark. Frank stays still, more out of surprise than anything else. Karen’s thumb sweeps across the scar.

“Looks bad,” she says.

He snorts. “Thanks for that.”

She looks up sharply. She has one hand between her breasts, holding the small towel she has wrapped around her torso; it isn’t large enough to fit around her comfortably. Her other hand falls away from his chest, fingers just brushing against his stomach as she steps back. He feels the touch like the whisper of a branding iron—every muscle pulls tight and he has to bite back a sharp inhalation.

“No,” she says, and she sounds embarrassed. “I didn’t mean—the injury looks bad, not you—”

“Just giving you shit, Page,” he says, smiling with one corner of his mouth.

She gives him an exasperated look. “You’re an ass sometimes,” she says, but she says it fondly.

He chuckles. The exchange seems to have drained the fear out of her, and she walks into the showers without that taut set to her shoulders. There’s only two men in the showers, both older and uncaring about Frank or Karen. Frank takes up his usual position on the second to last shower, while Karen takes the one beside the wall. She slips her towel free, revealing pale skin and long limbs and it isn’t anything Frank hasn’t seen before but something makes him look away. He tries to focus on their surroundings, even as he twists the shower knob to life and the hot spray of water hits him in the chest. It feels good; they didn’t let him have showers in the infirmary, settling for sponge baths. He lets out a sigh of relief as he rubs a hand across his cheek; he’ll need to shave, after this. And get a haircut. He’ll be back to himself in a few weeks, and then everything will go back to normal.

Cage leaves the next day.

It’s abrupt, one of those transfers that happens at a moment’s notice. Frank is coming back from his shift in the laundry room; he smells like bleach and his fingers are rubbed raw by the strings of the laundry bags. He finds Cage in his cell, setting a book on the bed. Cage looks up.

“Returning this,” he says, with a glance at the book. “I’m leaving in ten. Page around?”

“She’s at the commissary,” says Frank.

Cage lets out a breath. “No time, then. I left a note for her in the book. You’ll tell her I said goodbye?”

Frank inclines his head. “Yeah.”

Cage walks closer, and Frank is once again aware of the threat this man could present, if he chose. He’s taller, more muscled, and stronger than should be humanly possible. But he merely gives Frank a polite nod, says, “You take care, Castle,” and quietly walks from the cell.

Frank watches him go, then picks up the book. He opens it up, finds a note written on the title page.

It’s the name of a prison—Seagate Penitentiary—followed by an inmate number. Then a single line: You need me, you call. Thanks for the book.

Chapter Text

Autumn creeps into winter.

The scar on Frank’s chest begins to smooth out, the edges of flaming red fading. He can breathe a little easier, and he no longer tires when he goes to the yard. The air is frigid, every breath a lungful of ice and mist. He has to take care with the bars, to make sure his warm skin won’t stick to the metal. The prison becomes colder, and more inmates layer on extra shirts and socks in an attempt to stay warm. Lucero takes up knitting in November, more out of boredom than anything else. His first few attempts are little more than knotted disasters of yarn but on his third, he manages a passable attempt at a scarf. It still looks like it’s been run over by a car a few times and the edges are uneven. The kid wears it as proudly as any designer suit, and privately, he admits to Frank he’s trying to make a hat for Hodges. With Christmas coming up, Lucero wants to make gifts instead of using his scant commissary funds to buy them.

Curtis continues to send letters and books every few weeks. There’s a Christmas card tucked into one, opened so that the guards could read it.

Hey, Frank. Sorry about the card—I got a few out of a box at some second-hand store and this was the only one left after I sent out cards to the family.

Frank flips over the card—it’s sparkly. And pink.

Anyways, I hope your holidays are going well. I won’t be around for Christmas. I’m flying out to be with my parents, but I’ll visit after New Years. I’ve been looking into the thing you asked me to, but no one’s biting. If I didn’t know better, I’d think everyone’s been warned off.

Frank’s breath quickens. The lawyers—he asked Curtis to look for lawyers months back, and this explains why Curtis hasn’t returned with any yet.

Karen’s case has been blacklisted. Someone in power has told all of the local lawyers not to take her on as a client—which makes sense. If Union Allied really powerful enough to arrange a perfectly framed murder, bribing or threatening lawyers wouldn’t be out of the question. Frank feels his jaw clench.

I’ll see you in January. Stay safe, brother.


Frank sets the card on the small shelf. It’s horrifyingly pink and sparkly, but it’s still a card—and it makes Karen snort with laughter when she sees it. “It’s got a Pomeranian in a Santa hat on it,” she says, delighted. “This is the worst card I’ve ever seen. It’s great.”

Karen has taken to crafting, as well, but not knitting. She managed to wrangle a few colored papers out of the commissary and has taken to figuring out how to fold them into paper flowers and plants. “We used to do this in elementary school,” she mutters, glaring down at her third attempt to fold a paper poinsettia. “If I can just remember which way to fold it…”

“What are you trying to make?” he asks. He’s been reading Curt’s latest gifted paperback—some book about a magical sourdough recipe. He sits on the bed while Karen works on the floor.

“A wreath,” she says, frowning down at her papers. “It’s harder without scissors, but I’ve managed to fold and tear pretty well. I thought we could decorate the cell for the holidays, at least. If I got good at it, maybe I could give one to Lucero and Hodges.”

He looks down at the attempted flower. “If you’re going for a wreath that’s two-weeks old and a little wilted, I think you’re there.”

She throws a crumpled ball of paper at him. He lets it hit him in the forehead. He deserves it—and it makes Karen smile. He tosses it back to her and she catches it in midair.

Things have been easier between them. They’ve fallen into a rhythm that feels honest and comfortable. There’s been no retaliation for Jackson’s death, and Frank has begun to think there might not be one. Jackson wasn’t one of Dutton’s usual guys and he didn’t belong to any of the gangs—and his two closest friends were both killed on the day that Jackson attacked Karen. But still, Frank keeps an eye out and walks Karen to the commissary when he can. They haven’t started training again yet—their training ground is a place that Karen will probably not wish to return to, and Frank won’t push her. She hasn’t returned to the chapel since that day. Maybe there is another place that Frank can find, but none immediately come to mind.

He’ll figure something out.

In mid-December, a bout of illness burns through the prison.

This is one of the worst things about prison, Frank has come to realize. It’s like a college dorm: one person gets sick, then it turns into an epidemic because everyone is in such close quarters. And quite a few of the guys aren’t exactly enthused about hand washing. One morning, there’s a few people coughing and hacking into their breakfasts. Frank, Lucero, and Hodges rise immediately and walk away from the table, leaving their half-eaten egg patties behind. Karen blinks, but scrambles after them. “What is it?”

“Someone’s sick,” says Lucero, sounding irritated. “And they can’t just keep that shit in their cells.”

Hodges lets out a sigh. “I should go to the commissary. Stock up.”

Karen glances between them. “Stock up on what?”

“Tea,” says Hodges. “Painkillers. Cold meds. They’ll sell out in only a few days—get what you can, too.”

Karen still looks baffled. “It’s just someone coughing in the mess.”

“It is now,” says Lucero grimly.

Frank does stop by the commissary before his shift in the laundry room. Already, the supply of medications is low; people know what to expect. Frank buys tissues, meds, tea, and more food. Karen looks at the pile of supplies with surprise. “Did you spend your entire month’s account on that?”

“Pretty much,” he says, and begins tucking most of the supplies out of sight, behind the books on the shelf. He doesn’t want them visible to passersby.

Karen shakes her head. “I assume this has happened before?”

“Yeah,” says Frank. “About a month after I first got here. There was a flu epidemic. I managed to steer clear because I was in solitary but…” He shrugs. “It was bad.”

Karen sobers. “You think it’ll happen again.”

“Even if it doesn’t, better to have these things and not need them.” Frank straightens.

But within two days, half of the prison ends up laid low by some kind of virus. Everything shuts down—people can’t work their shifts so toilets go unscrubbed and meals are chaotically thrown together. Most people avoid public spaces for fear of getting sick; the rec room becomes a ghost town. Frank and Karen keep to the confines of their cell, but even that turns out to be not enough.

Frank wakes up on the third day and knows something is wrong. There’s the telltale prickle of discomfort in his muscles, a cold ache that cannot be satiated with blankets or even Karen’s body against his. Then his throat burns, his head pounds, and he begins coughing. The fever renders him unable to walk more than twenty feet in a straight line. It’s humiliating and infuriating, and Karen’s the one to order him to bed. “You shouldn’t be near me,” he mutters, when she brings him a cup of tea and the medicine. “You’re going to catch it.”

“We’ve been sharing the same germs for a while now,” she says, matter of fact. “If I’m going to catch it, I’m going to catch it. Now scoot over—you’re shivering again.”

He should warn her away, but even the scant heat her body gives off feels good. He tries to cough into his pillow, muffling the sound.

Sometime on third day, he notices Karen slipping out of the cell. He lifts his head. “Where?” he manages to croak.

She walks back to the bed, bringing him a cup of water. He drinks half of it. “Hodges is sick, too,” she says. “The commissary’s out of medicine—I thought I’d bring him some of the cough drops. He ran out.”

“Not a good unit,” says Frank hoarsely. He begins to sit up, but she presses him down with a hand against his chest.

“You stay down,” she says firmly. “I’ll be fine. Half of the prison is coughing up their own lungs right now—people are too worried about getting sick to go near anyone else.”

“Won’t stop everyone.” He hates the idea of her going into that unit alone. For all that she can take care of herself, it still feels like watching her walk down some dark alley without being able to help.

“I know,” she says softly. “But Hodges needs help.” Her hand sweeps across his forehead, fingers lingering at his hairline. “You try to get some rest. I’ll be back soon.”

He doesn’t sleep while she’s gone. He’s making plans—if she doesn’t return in half an hour, he’s leaving this bed flu or not. He’s going after her. He blinks, and the world goes a little fuzzy.

When he comes back to himself, Karen is rinsing out a cup in the sink. He must have fallen asleep, he realizes, frowning to himself. She glances at him. “You should drink something.”

He manages to swallow half a cup of tepid water before falling asleep again. Every part of him aches. Karen slides into bed beside him, and her warmth is a welcome relief.

He wakes that night, the dry air scraping through his raw throat and everything too near, too warm. He has to throw the blanket off, and there’s a whimper beside him. Karen isn’t awake, not really, but she reaches for blanket. Her face is flushed and her breath is ragged. He touches her forehead. She mumbles something, turning into his touch. She’s cold—and he’s so warm it hurts.

“Com’ere,” he murmurs and wraps an arm around her, pulling her close. She buries her face into the hollow of his neck. Her breath is damp against his skin, and somehow his fingers end up in her hair. She coughs into his chest.

They spend two days in various states of tangled, feverish misery. Frank leaves the bed to retrieve water and the last of the cold meds. Neither goes to the mess hall; they don’t have much of an appetite. Frank’s fever breaks first, and he hauls himself out of the bed. The sheets are disgusting—sweaty and old. “Come on,” he says. Karen groans and doesn’t move.

“I need to change the sheets,” he says blearily.

A grumble. Then she raises her head—her bedhead is something to behold. Her soft blonde hair sticks up on one side in a sweaty mess. She stumbles out of bed to use the toilet while he digs out their spare sheet and blanket, remaking the bed. The fabric is cool and clean against his fingers. When he’s finished, he glances over to see Karen standing at the sink, chugging a glass of water. Her eyes are red-rimmed and she’s shivering, but at least there’s no hacking cough. He’s heard other inmates in coughing fits; whatever illness this is, it’s hitting some people hard.

Another day, and Karen recovers more fully. Frank feels a little weak, but he’s on his feet again and alert. He does insist on both of them heading to the showers; the steam and heat helps ease the ache in his throat and nose, and Karen looks more comfortable once she is clean.

Lucero stops by that afternoon—and his face is drawn. “Hey, you guys doing better?”

“Yeah.” Karen’s voice is still a little ragged. “Looks like the worst is past. You get it?”

Lucero shakes his head. “Good immune system,” he says. “And my mom vaccinated the shit out of us kids. Wanted to make sure we didn’t die of something preventable.” His face sobers. “You been to see Hodges?”

“Not for four days,” says Karen hoarsely.

Lucero’s fingers curl and uncurl. He looks more lost and unsure than Frank has ever seen—and it puts Frank on edge. “He’s—he’s not doing so great,” says Lucero quietly. “I went to see him this morning and he’s having trouble breathing. I told a CO that he should be in the infirmary, but they’re full.”

Once Lucero has gone, Frank glances at Karen. Her face is drawn with worry. “I want to go see Hodges,” she says, but he presses her back against the bed with a hand on her shoulder.

“You’re still sick,” he says. “You could reinfect him, if there’s more than one strain of this shit going around. I’ll go check on him.”

She looks unhappy but doesn’t argue his logic. “Soup,” she says, voice fraying.

He blinks. “You want soup?”

“No, for Hodges,” she says. She swallows, clears her throat. “We just got a shipment of those ramen cups a day before I got sick. They might still have some. If Hodges is feeling anything like us, he probably hasn’t been up to going to meals.”

Frank nods, understanding. Of course she’s thinking about that.

“I’ll stop by the commissary before I go there,” he says. “It’s a good idea.” He waits until she is dozing before he leaves the cell. He goes to the commissary. Those instant ramen cups aren’t exactly healthy or tasty, but it’s the closest they can get to chicken soup in here. Which is precisely why the chicken flavor is sold out. He settles for a beef and a shrimp. He’s seen Hodges eat beef plenty of times in the mess.

Frank strides into Hodges’ unit, glancing around himself. It’s not a good unit—Hodges is well-situated enough not to worry, but Frank knows that several of the gang hitters live nearby. He stays alert as he walks toward Hodges’ cell and raps on the door.

Hodges looks… old. His face sags with exhaustion and his voice is barely a croak. “The kid sent you, didn’t he?”

“Page, actually,” says Frank. “Brought you some lunch.”

Hodges blinks at him. “‘Course it was her. She sick?”

“She’s been better,” Frank admits.

“Good.” Hodges sits up enough to take the soup. He doesn’t eat it, at least not right away. There’s a weight to his gaze and words, a somber tone that Frank has never heard in Hodge’s voice before. “You take care of her, you hear?”

“She’s on the mend,” Frank says. “She isn’t that sick—”

“Not now.” Hodges coughs hard into his elbow. “S-she’s pissed someone off. She’s got someone that wants her dead. Someone high up, someone with enough money to bribe the COs.”

Frank goes quiet.

“You don’t have to confirm it,” says Hodges. “I’ve been around long enough. I know what goes on in political circles, with mobs, with the kind of power that comes with money. And that girl—that girl’s too damn big-hearted to have committed a murder. I’ve heard the rumors, and they’re bullshit. Someone put her here because they wanted her out of the way.” He frowns at Frank. “Don’t have any kids myself. Never had the time. But she’s—she’s what I would have wanted in a daughter. Smart, brave.”

Hodges never talks about his family or lack thereof. Frank gazes at the older man. Hodges’ expression is shuttered tight.

“That kid, too,” Hodges says. “Good kid. Deserves another chance. You make sure he lives long enough to see it, okay?”

Frank’s heartbeat quickens. “Hodges…”

“Just saying it,” says Hodges, gaze sliding away. “In case I don’t get another chance.”

Frank knows something of goodbyes; he wrote his own before every high risk mission. There’s a comfort in knowing that a person will leave something behind, whether it’s a note or a spoken farewell.

Frank nods. “I’ll make sure they both get out of here alive,” he says quietly. “You have my word on that.”

Hodges smiles. “You’re not too bad yourself,” he says. “Thanks for the soup.”

Frank recognizes the dismissal and quietly leaves the cell behind.

A week passes, and finally, most of the prison recovers from the flu. Hodges stays in bed, but his health doesn’t worsen, which Frank takes as a good sign. Karen goes back to working at the commissary, and Frank spends a few extra hours in the yard. It’s freezing outside, but he doesn’t care; between his recent illness and injury, he’s not as strong as he should be. So he goes back to the weight machines, ignoring the thin layer of snow on the ground.

The morning of Christmas eve, something happens. Something that hasn’t happened in a very long time.

He awakens and realizes that he’s hard

It’s been over three years since he’s had sex.

Fifteen months of deployment. That one day he had with his family… he came home too exhausted to even think about sex, and back then, he was under the impression there wasn’t any rush. He wasn’t going back overseas. He could take his time and make love to his wife when he wasn’t a jet-lagged mess.

But there wasn’t time. 

It isn’t that he doesn’t like sex—he does. But his libido died with Maria, and he hasn’t really given much thought to his dick in months.

At least Karen’s still asleep, her breaths even and fingers loose. She hasn’t noticed. 

She isn’t Maria. She isn’t a girlfriend or even a one-night stand. He’s had precisely one of those, in college, when he and a philosophy major ended up in the coat room at a party. They’d laughed about the imprint of a boot on Frank’s lower back the next morning, when Frank managed to cobble together breakfast for them both, and she went to an early morning Spanish class. They’d remained friends until graduation.

Karen is beautiful. He isn’t completely immune to that. If they had met under different circumstances, he could imagine buying her a drink and trying to be smooth—although more likely, he’d end up tripping over his own tongue.

But this isn’t that kind of life.

She needs him in here. It’s just a fact. Without him, she’ll probably end up being taken as a bedwarmer for one of the gang leaders—and that’s the best case scenario. He can imagine so many worse ones. He has seen the kinds of shit that can happen to women in war zones, and this place will be no different. So if he ever so much as implies that he wants something from her… she would probably go along with it out fear of him withdrawing his protection. She might see him as the least evil option—after all, he wouldn’t pimp her out or do any of the other fucked up shit that might happen if she went to another man for help.

That isn’t going to happen. Not ever.

Frank knows he doesn’t have much honor left to his name—he is a convicted mass murderer, a father who failed both his kids, a husband who couldn’t protect his wife, a man who has disappointed most everyone who ever believed in him. But this is one thing he has left: he can keep Karen Page safe.

Karen murmurs in her sleep, a soft sound that could be his name. It comes out a little breathy.

And fuck, if that doesn’t make him even harder. He needs to move away before—

He feels her awaken. Her body stiffens a little—which he can feel because his hard dick is pressed up against her ass.

Karen sits up a little on one elbow, glances over at him, grinning, and says “Isn’t this the part where you quip, ‘Say hello to my little friend?’”

“Sorry,” he says, trying to angle his body away. He rolls onto his back.

Karen lets out a laugh. She doesn’t sound frightened—thank fuck. She just sounds… giggly. Which is something he hasn’t heard before. He glances over his shoulder.

“I’m sorry,” she says, covering her eyes. “I shouldn’t tease you. I had a brother growing up, I know these things aren’t voluntary.”

Had a brother. The use of the past tense gives him pause, but he doesn’t remark on it. She’ll tell him, if she wants to.

“You want me to… I don’t know. Go grab some breakfast?” she suggests.

Frank glares at her, even if she can’t see it. “I’m not going to kick you out of our room so I can jerk off. It’ll go away on its own.” And besides, he doesn’t want her in a crowd alone like that. Everyone knows the most dangerous places are crowds; a person could stab her—or worse—and it would take the guards far too long to reach them. His mood darkens at the thought—and while that isn’t pleasant, at least it has the added side benefit of reminding his dick where their priorities are. “Again, sorry.”

“Frank,” she says. “We’re living in tight quarters. I watched you pull a blonde hair out from between your teeth a few days ago. I know these things happen.” She pauses. “But if you ever do want privacy—just let me know.”

He groans. “It’s—it’s not a priority for me.”

She peels her hand away from her eyes.

“I’m used to it,” he says. “Going without. Deployments lasted fifteen months—and it wasn’t exactly easy to rub one out when you’re surrounded by twenty other guys in a tent. I mean, people did, of course, and you pretended not to hear them. Some guys found one night stands on leave. But me—I had Maria. And I didn’t want anyone else.”

Her face softens. “You don’t talk about her much.”

He shrugs. “She’s gone. I—I don’t really know what else there is to say.”

She nods. “I’m sorry, Frank.” And the way she says, he knows it isn’t just a platitude.

For a few moments, they’re both quiet. Frank glances down at himself with some relief; everything’s back to normal. “So what do you want to do?” he asks. “Christmas eve and all.”

“I guess I should hang that wreath,” she says. “And give one to Lucero and Hodges. You want to come with me?”

He swings his legs over the side of the bed, stretching. “Sounds as good a plan as any.”

He makes coffee while she washes her face in the sink. The three paper wreaths are pretty good, he has to admit. She used green and red paper and they look properly festive. He hasn’t celebrated any holidays in so long that this… kind of nice. Once they’re dressed, they head to Lucero’s cell first.

Lucero’s current cellmate is one of the older lifers. He grins at Karen and Frank, showing a few missing teeth. “Well, look at this.”

“Nice,” says Lucero, jumping up from his bed. He takes the proffered paper wreath with a laugh. “You couldn’t fold me a whole Christmas tree?”

“Ran out of paper,” says Karen, and gives him a hug. Lucero grins and retrieves two gifts of his own. One is a pair of a fingerless gloves. “For your insane outdoor workouts,” Lucero says solemnly too Frank, handing them over. To Karen, he gives a rather lumpy red scarf. Karen takes it, running her hands across the soft yarn. “It isn’t that good, I know,” Lucero says, “but I figure it’s warm and—”

“It’s perfect,” says Karen, with feeling.

Lucero tries not to look pleased and fails utterly. “You going to see the old man? I could come with. I made him a hat. It’s got earflaps.”

“Stylish,” Karen says, smiling.

The walk to Hodges’ unit takes about ten minutes. Lucero talks a little about the blanket he’s trying to knit, but he only has so much yarn that his family sent him. “My grandma’s really into it,” he is saying as they round a corner. “She’s happy someone in the family’s finally taken it up. Sure, she probably was hoping it wouldn’t take one of us going to prison in order to continue on the tradition but—”

Frank sees it first.

His steps halt and he sweeps out an arm, pressing both Lucero and Karen to the wall. There’s the squeak of wheels, a murmur, and then—

The gurney is old. The rails are dented plastic and the sheets are ragged at one edge. The fabric covers a still form. Two COs wheel the gurney past, barely glancing at Frank as they go by. The covered shape upon the gurney is horribly familiar.

Frank’s heart pounds.

For a moment, no one speaks. Then Lucero darts around Frank, taking off at a run. His footsteps echo in the cement hallway, too loud, but not loud enough to drown out the soft, shuddering breath that Karen exhales.

They remain silent, unmoving. It feels as though to move would be to break some spell, to shatter something. Frank barely breathes.

And then they both hear a cry of grief echo down the hallway.

Frank closes his eyes.

Chapter Text

Karen has little memory of the aftermath of Hodges’ death.

She wonders later if it’s a form of self-defense—her mind walling away those bright, painful flashes so that she’s numb and a little bewildered. This is what she does remember: Frank’s hand at her shoulder, squeezing lightly, telling her to go back to their cell.

She does. Again, there’s little memory of how she gets there, but she’s in her room and sitting on the bed, wondering vaguely if she should be doing something. She should do something. She doesn’t know what she can do. But her fingers twitch and the numbness gives way to a terrible restlessness, an inability to remain still. She wants to move, to act, but she knows she can’t leave here, not like this. Even with the prison still recovering from illness, it’s too dangerous.

Frank returns in about an hour. He’s carrying a pillowcase filled with what looks like—

“Is that Hodges’ things?” she asks.

Frank nods, setting down the pillowcase. “They’d be looted within the hour,” he says curtly. “Once I got Lucero back to his room, I doubled back. Figured—figured the old man would rather his friends divvy up his things.”

She wants to argue. To say that this isn’t the way the world should be. They shouldn’t be looting from dead men. But they don’t live in the world. They live in here, where the rules are different.

He shoves the pillowcase to the side of the bookshelf, where it’ll be out of sight from those walking by. Then he sits beside her. “Hey, he says, and his voice is so soft that it hurts. Her throat aches with it, and she has to look away. “Hey,” he says again. “What do you want to do?"

“If this were the outside world, I’d probably just work for a week straight, drink a shot of whisky, and then pass out for twelve hours.” She looks around the cell. “I don’t know how to do this in here.”

She doesn’t know how to mourn in a place where death is a constant companion. Death is everywhere here: in sharpened bits of plastic, in unclean bathrooms, in illness, in carelessness, in the very apathy of the guards. Karen has been aware of her own mortality since she first set foot in prison, so she was prepared for her own end. She was not prepared for the death of a kindly old man who befriended her when he had no selfish reason to do so.

She goes to kneel beside the pillowcase. Hands shaking slightly, she pulls it open and glances inside. Books—so many books. Pulpy mysteries and a few westerns and even some old science fiction. Other than the books, there is a worn quilt, a tube of toothpaste, a blank notebook, some pens, two stamps, and a bag of hard candy.

These are the scant remnants of Hodges’ life. And while it feels wrong to take them, she knows she will.

He would want her to survive in here. He would want her to get out.

Silently, she begins putting the books on the shelves.

On December twenty-seventh, they have a wake—or at least, as best a wake as they can manage. They don’t do it in the chapel; Karen still hasn’t brought herself to set foot in there since Jackson’s attack. She knows that someday that’ll have to change. But for now, she’s putting it off. They hold Hodge’s wake in the rec room, when everyone’s at dinner. It’s quiet, save for the occasional footfall in the hallway.

None of them have much to say. It becomes swiftly apparent how little they knew about him; other than his crimes, Hodges wasn’t forthcoming with his life’s story. So they sit quietly, drinking cups of lukewarm tea.

“Hodges would have hated this,” Karen says abruptly.

Lucero looks pale and miserable. His family came to visit him but even that hasn’t raised his spirits. It’s strange to see the younger man so subdued, but then again, she supposes that he has little experience with death. Karen has seen enough of it that even this tragedy’s edges are less sharp than they might have been. “What?” he says, a bit blearily.

“Hodges would’ve hated this,” Karen says again. “He’d want us to play poker and drink whisky or something.”

“Whisky is disgusting,” says Lucero.

“Not the point,” says Karen. “He’d—he’d want us to do something fun.”

“Do you want to play poker?” asks Frank. He does so in such a way that Karen just knows he’d rather eat gravel than play poker, but he’ll do it for their sakes. She’s grateful for his presence, for the way he’s always there, even when he doesn’t say a word. Sometimes, she’ll catch him looking at her, and there’s a line between his brows. It isn’t quite a frown, but something near to it. He’s worried about her, she can tell. And she wishes she could tell him that she’ll be all right, but that’s a promise none of them can make. Not in here.

“Not really,” Karen admits. “I just… thought I should point it out.”

“When we get out of here,” says Lucero, “we’ll go to one of those old theaters. Watch one of those stupid black and white films he was into.”

Karen smiles, but it fades after a moment. “Sounds good,” she says.

It’s a good fantasy, at the very least. Karen allows herself to dwell there, for a few moments. In some other world, where the seats are worn and soft and the air smells of popcorn. Where they’re all free and safe.

She’s not sure she’ll ever be in that world again.

If there is anything Frank despises, it’s feeling useless.

The days after Hodges’ death are grim ones. The reality of how easy it is to lose someone in here seems to have hit Lucero hard and while Karen is less obvious about it, it’s clear she’s grieving, as well. Frank liked Hodges, but the older man’s loss doesn’t hold the same weight for him. So Frank does what he can for Lucero—a clap on the shoulder, a mention of maybe teaching the kid to fight again. Lucero brightens a little at the suggestion, but swiftly sinks back into the shadows. If this were the kind of place prison should have been, the kid could have had counseling or something like it. But here, the COs don’t give a shit about the mental health of their charges.

As for Karen, she’s dealing. She’s strong and she’s lost people before. But it still makes his chest ache to see her get up from their bed with the look of a person that would rather stay in it. She’s losing something in here—a vital part of her fading before his very eyes. He can’t bear to see that light go out of her, not if he can do something about it.

Finally, on the last day of the year, Frank decides that enough is enough. So he does something he never has before—he goes to the thriving black market. And he returns to their cell with what appears to be a bottle of hand soap.

Karen sees the bottle and blinks. “Were we out?”

“No,” says Frank. “And don’t wash your hands with this.” He tosses it to her and she catches it, startled. Her fingers sweep across the label and her brows knit. She seems to be studying the liquid, frowning intently. Then, she gets it.

“This isn’t soap, is it?” she says slowly. Then her expression sharpens with understanding. “Oh my god, you bought pruno.”

“Happy New Years,” he says. “It’s going to taste like shit.”

“Exactly what a girl wants to hear when someone buys her a drink,” she says. “Is… is it safe?”

“I went to the most reliable seller,” Frank replies. “He’s been doing this for years. No one’s died.”

“A ringing endorsement if I’ve ever heard one.”

“You don’t have to drink it,” he says. “I just thought… I mean, this holiday season—it isn’t whisky, but I thought—”

Understanding flashes across her face. “No, it was a good thought. We can toast to the new year.” She gives him a faltering smile, and he takes it for the small victory that it is.

The prison does little to mark the passing of the year into the next. There’s a little extra food at dinner that night and some of the other inmates mention their own ill-gotten drinks, but no one dares throw a party. At least, not in this unit. Dutton maybe throwing a black-tie ball for all that Frank knows—or cares.

He waits until ten, when the doors all click shut, the locks sliding into place. They’re safe—as safe as they ever will be.

“You want to grab the cups?” he asks.

Karen snorts. “I think this stuff would burn through a cup.” She unscrews the cap, sniffs, winces, then throws back a swig. She hands the bottle to him and he sips—then coughs hard. It tastes like bile and sugar.

“Smooth, right?” Karen says, grinning.

“How did you manage without coughing half of it back up?” Frank clears his throat. The fire-hot taste of the booze settles on the back of his tongue. He takes another drink, and this time it goes down easier.

“I have some experience with shitty booze,” Karen says. “Never drank it out of a hand soap bottle, though.” She sits on the floor, her back to the wall, and he sits beside her. The emergency lights from the hallway cast a glow across her features. There are still inmates talking to one another; there’s a low buzz of conversation that the COs don’t care to silence, at least not tonight.

There’s a companionable silence between them for a few minutes. They pass the bottle back and forth a few times, each lost to their own thoughts. Karen’s thigh is pressed up against his and he can smell the sharp, industrial soap that they all use. Her fingers tighten on the bottle, and she is the first one to break the quiet. “I feel like we should be playing a drinking game.”

“You got any quarters?” he asks, one corner of his mouth quirking. He can feel the buzz setting up beneath his skin; he’s not a lightweight but he’s pretty sure this stuff is stronger than normal wine.

She laughs. It’s a good sound, and he knows he made the right decision. If drinking shitty booze and sitting on the floor is what it takes to make her laugh, he’ll do it. “I was always pretty good at beer pong.”

“I’d like to see that,” he says. “We’re lacking in… things to throw, though.”

“You couldn’t just say ‘balls?’” she says, cocking one blonde brow.

“It would’ve sounded weird if I’d said we were lacking balls,” replies Frank.

That gets another laugh out of her. “You’ve got those,” she says. She stretches, rolling her shoulders. She looks more relaxed than he’s seen since before Christmas. “Thanks for this. I—I think I needed it more than I realized.”

“Hodges?” he says, then regrets it immediately. Of course she’s still upset about Hodges; it’s barely been a week.

She exhales hard. “Yes. And no. The holidays… well, they were never my favorite time of the year.”

That throws him. “You never liked Christmas?” he asks. “You seem like you would.”

She slides him a flat look. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You made a holiday wreath out of green paper,” he said.

“Oh.” She blinked. “Well. I thought it would brighten up the cell. And—it was something to do.” She hands him the bottle and he drinks, wincing. “I guess, I did used to enjoy the holidays. When I was young. But after I turned thirteen—not anymore.”

“What happened?” It’s not a question he asks lightly; the words taste like burnt sugar in his mouth, the aftertaste of the alcohol lingering on his tongue.

Karen takes the bottle back. She’s a better drinker than he is, he realizes. She doesn’t seem fazed by the taste or high alcohol content. “My mom died,” she said, with a shrug of one shoulder. “Cancer. It happened in the winter, so the holidays that year weren’t… weren’t great. Our family never really recovered after that. We were just… trying to stay afloat while my dad pretended not to notice we were all sinking.”

“I’m sorry.” And he is. No one should go through losing a parent that young.

She takes another swig, then passes the bottle to him. “Tell me about your family.”

He swallows more of the pruno than intended. “What?”

“Your family,” she says again. “How’d you meet Maria?”

He hasn’t thought about that in well over a year. Too many memories, even the good ones, have razor-sharp edges. But it’s Karen asking, and… and she’s the only person who has asked. Who wants to know.

So he answers.

“It was college,” he says. “We met in a park. I was playing guitar—badly. She made fun of me for it, told me to try a different song. I told her if she wanted a request, it’d cost her a date.”

Karen smiles. “You said something about being a music minor back when we first met.”

“It was a selfish minor,” he says. “Couldn’t get a job as a musician. Was never good enough. But I’d always liked music. And my major—well, that was where I always knew I was headed.”

“The military,” she said.

Frank nods. “There was a man who was friends with my dad. Ray Schoonover. He was the one to think I’d be a good fit. I was kind of a hot head when I was younger.”

“Imagine that,” Karen says dryly.

“I ended up in NROTC in college,” he continues. “I was a senior when I met Maria.”

“And you stayed together,” she says.

He can feel the alcohol as a blooming warmth beneath his breastbone. There’s a pleasant heat to it, despite the terrible taste. He takes another sip. “We were together for three months before… well, we were young. Careless. She got pregnant. She said she’d understand if I didn’t want to stick around.”

“You did,” says Karen, without a trace of hesitation.

“I bought her a ring that day,” he admits. “We graduated just before Lisa was born, and I had a few months before I was shipped out that first time. I was in sniper training at Quantico.”

“Sniper training, huh?” she says, propping her chin on her hand. “Luke said something about that.”

“Yeah, I was pretty good at it,” he says. “Spent weeks learning how to calculate angles and windspeed. Schoonover wanted me for his team, so he got me into specialized training for recon. I’d spend weekdays down in Virginia. And then on weekends I’d come back and help change diapers and stay up all night with Lisa. She wasn’t a good sleeper back in those days, and I’d just walk around our apartment with her, trying to keep her quiet so Maria could get some rest.”

“That’s not easy,” Karen says. “I can’t imagine being a parent that young. You were… what? Twenty-one?”

“Twenty-two,” he says. “It wasn’t easy. But looking back on it—shit, I’d do anything to live that again. Things were simpler.”

“What was Lisa like?” she asks.

It doesn’t hurt to talk about his family with Karen. He isn’t sure why—maybe it’s because she listens like it matters. Like they matter.

“Tiny,” he says. “Born two weeks early. She liked being outdoors so I’d walk her around parks—it’s how I found this old carousel. She hated her crib and being left alone, so half the time I’d end up sleeping in a chair with her. I deployed when she was six months. Came back and she was walking. She still—she still remembered me, though. No idea how, she was just a baby when I left. But when I got home, she toddled right toward me and wanted me to pick her up.”

Karen grins. “I bet she was a handful.”

“Oh, yeah,” he says, with a snort. “Smartest kid you could meet, even at that age. She was picking up books and demanding we read them to her when other kids were still smearing their diapers on the walls.”

“Thank you for that mental image.”

“You don’t have kids,” he says. It’s a guess—but a calculated one.

“No,” she replies. “Never had the time, job or—well, relationship for that.”

He can’t imagine her ever lacking for company, if that’s what she desired. Surely she must have had men tripping over themselves to ask her out.

“So Lisa was your first child,” says Karen, drawing him back to the conversation.

Frank nods. “Yeah. I had a few months off after that tour, and—uh—”

She laughs and takes a long drink from the bottle. “You made up for lost time, didn’t you?”

He nods, smiling a little. “Maria was pregnant when I shipped out that second time. That was… a harder time.” He runs a hand across his face. “Shittier circumstances over there. More chaos, more fights. There were a few I was sure I wouldn’t come back from. Curtis—my friend—”

“The one who sends us books,” she says.

“Yeah, that’s him. He was with me over there. Ended up having his leg blown off by a suicide bomber.”

“Shit,” she says.

“Yeah,” he says, more heavily. “We got out, but barely. When I went home again I was… different. Seen more, done more. Sometimes I think that’s why…” He tilts his head back, takes a breath. He hasn’t ever admitted this to anyone; only Maria was witness to it. “First time Frankie saw me, he started bawling. He was terrified—didn’t know who the hell I was. Sometimes I wonder if he did see something. If maybe that’s why he and I…” He scrubs at the back of his head. “It was easier with Lisa, you know? With Frankie, though, there were times when we’d clash.” He tips the bottle back, downs the last of the alcohol. He knows he must be drunk because it doesn’t taste as bad.

“Tell me about him,” she says.

Frank swallows the burn of the drink. “He was headstrong. He got into a few fights at school with kids twice his size. He could be a little shit sometimes—he knew how to push people’s buttons and he pushed them. But he was also… he thought it was his job to keep Maria and Lisa safe when I wasn’t around. Since I wasn’t there, he thought he had to step up.”

“Sounds a lot like someone I know,” she says, with a small smile.

He snorts. “Yeah. If he was a pain in the ass, he got it from me.” He rubs at his chin, feels the scratch of stubble against his fingers. He needs to shave. “I should’ve been there more, I know. I missed so goddamn much.”

“You were a good dad.” Karen’s voice is soft, somehow more intimate in the darkened lights of the evening.

He makes a skeptical noise, deep in the back of his throat. He’s never been all that good at lying—not to himself and not to others. The drink must have fully settled within his bloodstream, because the world feels as though it’s sliding to one side. He blinks a few times, trying to put everything back into focus.

“I didn’t read her favorite book,” he says.

She looks at him. “What?”

“Lisa.” He says the name like it hurts—because it fucking does. “The day I came back from my last deployment—I was so tired. Fuck, I could barely stand. But my little girl… she wanted a bedtime story. Her favorite book. This little picture book—‘one batch, two batch, penny and dime.’ I told her I’d read it to her the next day, and then I went to bed. But—there wasn’t a next day, not for her.

“We took a blanket down to the carousel,” he says. “It was our tradition—when I came back, we’d spend the afternoon there. We were sitting on the grass and then I heard a scream.”

Her hand wraps around his arm, holds on tight. He can feel Karen’s cheek against his shoulder and he welcomes the steady weight; it feels like an anchor. “What happened?” she asks softly.

He gazes at the far wall. The world swims with alcohol and old memories. “It was a gang shooting. I found that out later—the Cartel, the Irish, and the Dogs of Hell. We were caught in the crossfire—we just… there wasn’t any place to run.”

Karen shudders against him, and he feels her arms tighten. “Jesus Christ.”

“My wife,” he says. “My son. My baby girl. It was my job to protect them. I didn’t.”

“Frank.” She pulls him even closer, and his face is pressed into her neck and he just clings to her because she is the only thing that feels steady. “No, Frank.”

He closes his eyes. She’s warm and alive and so very near. They sit there like that, and time passes. He isn’t sure how much. It could be twenty minutes or an hour. Finally, he has to ask. It’s the alcohol that loosens his tongue, makes it easier to ask the question that has been at the back of his mind for months. “Who’d you kill?”

She sits up, her spine ramrod straight. Eyes ahead, mouth taut.

“Not that coworker of yours,” he says. “I know—I know you’re innocent. But we talked… one of those first times we talked—you mentioned…”

“I remember,” she says. Her gaze slides away, and she suddenly looks distant.

“Hey,” he says. “Whatever happened, I don’t care. It won’t change anything.”

She remains quiet for nearly a full minute. Then he hears her speak—her words seem to resonate through her very skin and into his. She says, “I shot my boyfriend. But I killed my brother.”

“What?” He manages to sit up a little, so he can look at her. She just stares at the wall, a tight clench to her fingers as she wraps them around her own legs. Fingers dig into the worn fabric of her uniform, pale fingers against bright orange.

“I told you my mom died,” she says. “What I didn’t say was that… none of us did well after that. My little brother Kevin was the best of us, and he was just… he tried, but he was young. My dad couldn’t handle our family diner, couldn’t handle finances, couldn’t stop us from running into the ground. I tried to hold us all together, to keep things running, but I just—it was too much. It was a small town. I wanted out and I couldn’t get out. I had to defer going to college to take over running the diner. So I started doing drugs. It was the only thing that just… let me escape that place. Let me escape my own head, my own memories.”

Her voice is toneless and she won’t meet his eyes.

“I met a young man at a party. Todd—he was a dealer. He seemed smart and funny and we started dating and I helped him deal a little on the side. It was never big time—a lot of stolen prescriptions, a little bit of coke when Todd could afford it. Mostly weed. Kevin never approved. So when things just started breaking down between me and my dad, Kevin decided the only way to get me out of there was to get me to go to college. He wrote to the university, had me… un-deferred, I guess you could say. And then, when it seemed even that wouldn’t work, he burnt down Todd’s trailer. The one with all of the drugs.”

Frank draws in a sharp breath. He can see the way this story seems to be heading.

“Todd was furious,” says Karen. Her eyes are too bright, tears at the corners. “He picked up a tire iron and began beating Kevin with it. He was going to kill Kevin and I couldn’t think of what else to do, so I grabbed the pistol out of his truck and shot Todd in the shoulder. He lived—I found that out later. But Kevin… he was hurt and I had to get him to a hospital. I dragged him into the truck and drove away. But I was still high and we hit the divider and…” Her voice trails off, dissolves into memories.

This is it, he realizes. This is what she dreams of, in those moments when she comes awake. She is remembering broken glass and crumpled metal. She stares hard at the wall, throat working as she tries to swallow down whatever words she cannot utter.

This is why she hasn’t fought harder to get out of prison. She thinks she deserves this place.

Fuck that. Just—fuck that.

“Hey,” he says.

She won’t look at him. “Hey. You didn’t kill him.”

“I did,” she says, and her tears spill over. He wipes one away with his thumb. “If it wasn’t for me—”

“Someone would have beaten him to death with a tire iron, you just said,” he replies. He’s using all of his energy to make his words come out clearly. “You protected your family. Tried to get him to safety. What happened after wasn’t—wasn’t your fault. Accidents happen. You didn’t kill him.”

“You can’t—”

“I have known so many killers,” he says. “I see one in the mirror every goddamn day. And you’re not it. You got that?”

“How can you know that?” she asks.

“Because I do,” he says. “Sometimes you just know things.”

She shakes her head, and his thumb moves across her damp cheek.

“You’re good, Karen Page,” he says.

“I’m not,” she says, voice fraying again.

“You’re good for me,” he tells her, with all of the earnestness of the drunk.

She touches his hand, her fingers curling around his wrist. “Not the same thing,” she says softly.

His hand is at her neck, thumb behind her ear. She has a few fine, short hairs at the nape of her neck. His thumb is moving stroking back and forth at the base of her jaw, down her neck, then back up again. It feels strangely right. “They’d have liked you.”

“Who?” she asks, very quiet.

“My family.”

Her hand comes up, resting on his chest. “I wish I could’ve met them.”

“Yeah,” he says heavily. “Me, too.”

The room is spinning, but they lean against one another. The last thing he sees it the blonde of her hair.

When Karen wakes, it’s time for breakfast.

Her head aches and she’s too warm. It takes her a moment to understand why. There’s an arm around her waist and breath against her shoulder. She fell asleep practically atop Frank—they’re both still on the floor, and her lower back is protesting that decision. She sits up, trying not to disturb him. A snore rumbles through the back of his throat, a little louder than normal. She rises to her feet, pours a cup of water and chugs it at the sink. She hasn’t drunk so much in years.

She goes to use the toilet, then washes her hands and face.

It’s a new year, she realizes. A new year—and of course, they’re both going to start it hungover. She still can’t believe Frank bought alcohol for them both—it was probably foolish and spendy, and he did it because he thought she might enjoy it. She knows that.

He looks more vulnerable in sleep—mouth slack, fingers curled beneath his cheek.

At once, all of the memories of the previous night come flooding back to her. The booze and… and the conversation. He knows, now. He knows everything. She unearthed the darkest parts of herself and he held her afterward and told her she was good.

God. It felt like being given a benediction she hadn’t even known she’d wanted.

You’re good for me.

This is the one thing she didn’t manage to utter last night.

He is good for her, too. The rest of the world may never see Frank Castle as good, but he’s smart and loyal, honest and compassionate. He answered all of her questions when she asked, even when she could tell the answers pained him. It’s why she finally told him her own story—he gave her so many truths that she could not deny her own.

And—and this is the truth Karen Page acknowledges to herself. Only to herself.

She cares about him.

More than she should. More than she wants to. And not in the way that friends are supposed to care about one another.

She isn’t quite sure when that happened; she can’t pinpoint a single moment. But it’s undeniable now. She’s attracted to him.

It’s not going to happen, she knows that. Frank’s devotion to his wife is admirable and unmistakable. She and Frank are friends, that’s all. And it’s more than Karen ever really expected. She’s grateful for that friendship, for someone she can trust. The last thing she wants is for him to realize that she’s attracted to him. He’s done so much for her, and the last thing she ever wants to do is make him uncomfortable. He deserves better than that.

She looks down at him still asleep on the floor.

She wants to lay down beside him, to let those fingers curl around her and pull her close. He would, too. This is one of those things she has come to understand after weeks of sleeping beside him: he’s tactile in a way she never would have guessed. When they’re in bed, he always reaches for her. But only after he’s fallen asleep. If he were awake, he’d never do so.

Karen goes to the bed, pulls off one of the blankets and carefully drapes it around Frank. Then, she steels herself and goes to meet Lucero for breakfast.

Chapter Text

January is hard and gray.

Karen is a little reserved a few days. She is never cold, but there’s part of her that’s distant. Frank supposes it has something to do with their night of drinking—maybe what he told her made her look at him differently. He’s never uttered some of those things aloud before, and he wouldn’t blame her if her view of him were changed. But before his unease can truly settle in, she’s there and smiling and present as if nothing happened. He often wakes with her pressed against him. They’ve stopped trying to keep that scant inch of distance between them both—it’s useless, and besides, it’s too cold not to share body heat. Karen’s feet are icy in the morning and he makes a mental note to ask Lucero if he’s learned to knit socks yet.

In the last week of the month, there’s a suicide.

Frank knows the routine, so when the COs snarl at everyone to get back in their cells, he does so without a word. Karen is the one to frown, but he shakes his head and they step behind the bars. The doors are slid into place, locked while the guards deal with things.

An ambulance will be called in. A short investigation to make sure it truly was suicide.

The COs are grumbling; it’s just before curfew, most of them will go home late. Karen listens by the cell door, her arms drawn tightly around her stomach. She watches as a gurney is rolled by, a sheet carelessly tossed over the dead man. His arm hangs free.

Karen shudders and turns away. She’s paler than he can remember in a long time. “This happen a lot?” she asks softly.

He goes to sit on the bed, leaning on his knees. “Sometimes. This time of year, especially.” The yard has been closed for a week due to snow. Frank can feel the itch of restlessness beneath his skin, a burning energy that refuses to be silenced.

“You ever thought about it?” she asks, so quietly it takes a few moments for him to parse the words.

He considers. It’s not a simple answer. He knows the statistics and how easily he could’ve become one. “No,” he says. “And yes. Truth is, there were days that dying would’ve been a mercy. But… I wasn’t about to go that way. Wasn’t anything noble or strong about it. I just—I had things I had to do. I still do.

“What about you?” he asks.

She looks down at the floor. And she doesn’t have to answer for him to hear the reply.

“That close, huh?” he says. Part of him wants to stand, to walk over to her and just… he isn’t sure what he wants to do. Wrap his arms around her and rub some warmth back into her or try to tell her that she’ll be okay or find a shovel and try to dig his way out of this place before it kills her.

It won’t kill her. He won’t let it.

“There were a few moments,” she says. “After my brother died.”

“Well,” he says, “I’m glad you didn’t.”

She looks at him sharply. The entrapment is wearing on them both, rubbing away what little defenses they have. “Even after getting stabbed and having to share your tiny bed and your cell?” she says, her lips pressing into a smile. It’s a decent attempt at humor but he knows she means the question.

She doesn’t understand; she isn’t ever going to understand what she means to him.

She is the only meaning he’s found.

“Not the first time I’ve been stabbed,” he says. “I ever tell you about the time Frank Junior was trying to play soldier with his friends and grabbed a kitchen knife?”

“He didn’t,” she says, and a real smile twitches at the edges of her mouth.

“He did,” says Frank. “I went to investigate—he thought I was one of the kids. Ended up with two stitches in my forearm.”

Karen presses a hand to her mouth. “Oh my god.”

“Better me than one of the kids,” says Frank.

“What happened?” She sits beside him and he takes that for a victory. She is distracted, smiling, and it’s been years since he even thought about this story.

He tells her all of it.

The hole left in their group from Hodges’ death remains unfilled.

Lucero is more subdued these days; he still smiles and plays board games with Karen, but some of the light has gone out of him. It’s painful to see, even though Frank knew it was inevitable. No one comes out of war unchanged and while this place isn’t a battlefield, it is a fight to survive. Some people won’t make it. Lucero will—Frank is determined to see that through, at least. So he drags the kid to the cell more often than not, so he’s not alone with his thoughts.

Another batch of letters and late holiday gifts arrive. Lucero gets a box with some candy that the COs didn’t see fit to eat, along with an off-brand mp3 player and earbuds. The kid is happy with it, overjoyed his family loaded it up with his favorite music. Curtis is too busy this time of year to write more often; Frank knows his friend is trying to keep the homeless shelter running smoothly so fewer people will end up dying out in the snow. Frank gets a letter from Bill detailing how his new company has started picking up business. He breezes over the trials of settling into civilian life, seemingly at ease. Bill was always adaptable—and with his charm, he could fall into any circumstances and stand up smiling. At the bottom of the letter is a single line: Sent a gift. I know it’s not your thing but I figured you might need it.

There is a book with the letter. It’s a paperback with handcuffs on the cover and as soon as Frank reads the back, he realizes it’s thinly veiled erotica.

Frank snorts quietly. “Bill,” he murmurs, partly out of exasperation and fondness.

“What?” Karen walks into cell, her shift at the commissary ended.

Frank flips the book over, so the cover is visible. “Late Christmas gift from a friend.”


“Bill,” he says. He has talked a little about his friends and she knows them by name. She pulls her short hair out of a tight knot at the top of her head, shaking so that the blonde strands fall into place. Her hair has grown out a little, the edges still ragged.

She glances down, her eyebrows raising as she catches sight of the cover. “Is that what I think it is?”

“If you think it’s porn, then yeah.”

“It’s not porn, it’s…” She picks it up, flips open to a random page, and color suffuses her cheeks. “‘A scream burst from her as he sank to the hilt inside of her pulsating love cave.’” She snaps the book shut. “Yeah, it’s porn. And not really good porn, either.”

“Bill always had an eye for women,” says Frank, taking the book back. “This place would be his own version of hell.”

“I think this is a version of hell for pretty much everyone,” Karen says, but she’s smiling as she says it.

The thing is, though—it really isn’t. Not for him. Not anymore. He’s been in worse circumstances with people he trusted far less. And now that the threat of Jackson seems to have subsided, his life with Karen is… far more tolerable than he ever thought it could be. It isn’t great, but it isn’t hell, either.

“You going to read it?” she asks.

Frank shrugs. “I’ll probably trade it to one of the guys for something we need. Shit like this is valuable here.”

“Maybe I want to read it first,” she says, teasing a bit.

“Don’t let me stop you,” he says, shaking his head ruefully. “Enjoy your bad porn.”

“I will.”

She does read it. He sees her reading it, quietly laughing to herself as she does so. Every night, when he’s immersed in one of Hodges’ old pulpy mysteries, Karen is laughing to herself every few pages. It’s a little maddening—and intriguing.

“All right, what’s funny now?” he says, on the third night.

Karen glances up. They’ve taken to sitting on opposite ends of the bed, backs to the wall. Her leg is pressed up against his.

“Rex is about to tie Amalie up for the first time,” she says.

“His name is Rex?”

“Rex Steel.”

“Oh for fuck’s sake.” He sets his own book down. “I can’t believe you’re enjoying that.”

“I couldn’t necessarily call it enjoyment,” says Karen. “It’s more like, it’s so bad it’s good. It’s like watching a train wreck but with a dick instead of a train.”

“I could ask Curt to get you better porn.”

“I’d love to see you put that in a letter. ‘Prison is great; please send erotica.’"

Frank chuckles to himself. “Curt would probably do it."

“No, no,” she says, “this is great. Nothing can reach the heights of,” she glances down at the page, “’Rex looked down at her, all trussed up like a sexy Thanksgiving turkey.’”

He does laugh. Probably harder than he should—and a bit louder than he intends. Karen grins back at him, pleased with herself. 

God, that feels good. And now he gets it: why Karen actually likes that book. It’s bad, but it’s funny. And humor is such a rarity here.

“Keep going,” says Frank.

Karen’s grin widens. “‘Amelie moaned as he tightened the restraints. This was everything she had always dreamed of, but never let herself have. Rex’s member throbbed—’ Why do members always throb in this? And why do they call it a member?"

“Because ‘dick’ sounds like something you called someone in middle school?” he says. 

“Oh, here we go. ‘Her love flower blossomed at the sight of him, hard and ready for her. She widened her thighs, beckoning with her juices—‘"

Frank groans aloud, pressing a hand to his eyes. Karen just breaks into a peal of laughter before continuing. 

The good part is, the sex scenes are un-sexy enough that he doesn’t have to worry about embarrassing himself. Karen manages to keep a straight face through half of the bondage, but then she breaks into giggles when Rex’s dick is described like a sausage and cannot bring herself to pick the book up again for the rest of the night. “I will never eat sausage again,” she tells him as they ready themselves for bed.

She reads the book again the next night, and again. They read it all the way through—and the shitty porn gets them through January and into February.

She does have a fit of laughter the next time sausage is served at breakfast, much to Lucero’s confusion.

In February, Karen goes quiet again for a few days.

Frank lets her have some space; she’ll talk to him if she needs to. The winter is a lingering one, the yard still closed, and Frank has begun working out in their room. Karen will sit on the bed as he manages sit-ups and crunches. He can do a modified pull-up on the of the cell, at least. It isn’t the best workout, but it’s something. And it keeps him from wanting to punch a wall. Karen has no such outlet; she seems to be torn between burying herself in books and slowly sinking into a worn lethargy. He worries about that, about her. Maybe if he asked, Bill might send the second book in that terrible porn book series.

Finally, in the last week of the month, Karen admits what has been on her mind.

“Listen,” she says. “Please don’t get mad at me."

He blinks at her. He can’t imagine anything she could have done to piss him off. “What?"

“I applied for a program,” says Karen. “I—shit. I didn’t know if it would go through, but I’m having a phone interview today.”

“What is it?” asks Frank. He wipes the sweat from his last workout onto a towel. This is the first he’s heard of Karen applying for a program. There are a few—GED classes on old computers that don’t connect up to the internet, a few work programs, but Frank has never looked into them. He’s never getting out; there was never a point.

“It’ll be tough,” she says. “I probably should have asked you before applying, I’m sorry. You’ll have to be involved, too, because you live here. I really should have—”

“Karen,” he says, a growing unease at the base of his stomach. “What’d you get us into?” He knows that some inmates are recruited as fire fighters, and while he’d gladly do it, he isn’t sure how she could apply for both of them. Hell, if they are going to be firefighters, at least that would get them some fresh air. But what Karen says is entirely different. 

Karen hesitates. “You know that inmates train service dogs sometimes, right?”

The dog arrives two weeks later.

The puppy is a mutt—but there’s definitely a bit of pit bull in there, judging from the ears. A CO drops it off along with a long list of guide lines and instructions, handing the puppy to Karen with barely a look at Frank. There’ll be a few different inmates getting dogs to train, and the CO has to drop them off, too. When the guard leaves, Karen is left with an armful of wriggling puppy. She sets it carefully on the floor and Frank kneels before the dog. A glance at its stomach and—it’s a female. “Hey, sweetheart,” Frank murmurs, holding out a hand. The puppy sniffs his fingers, then gives his thumb a tentative lick. Frank scratches gently beneath her chin and her ears perk up, tail beginning to wag. He strokes her neck, up to her ears, and then her whole body is wriggling with the joy of it. She leaps on him, licking at his face and neck. “Hey, hey.”

He can barely believe it—a dog. A dog is licking at his right ear and he’s trying unsuccessfully to fend her off. 

Karen did this. Karen managed to do this—he has no idea how she managed it. They have a puppy, and while they’re expected to train it for eight months before giving it back, it’s still the best thing to happen to him in years. Of course she was the one who gave this to him, who managed to make this cell more of a home than he could hope for. 

“Hey, sweetheart, let’s get you back on the floor,” he murmurs, carefully setting the puppy back down. She is groaning with happiness, tail wagging hard. 

Karen laughs. “We’re going to have to teach her not to do that. It’ll be less cute when she’s full grown.”

“What are you gonna call her?” Frank has to fend off the puppy again, and she contents herself with sitting in his lap, gently gnawing at his fingers. They’re going to have to get chew toys.

“Don’t laugh,” says Karen. “I know it probably sounds ridiculous—but I was thinking Tansy?”

“Tansy?” he says.

“They were my favorite flowers,” she says. “I know they’re just wildflowers, but I always thought they were pretty. And I mean—I’ll probably never see them again, so I thought… might as well.”

Fuck. That hurts.

“Yeah,” says Frank quietly. “Tansy. It works.”

The puppy changes things.

For one thing, they have to housebreak her. Which is an ordeal unto itself. They can’t take her outside, so they have a special pad that can be emptied into the toilet. Still, it’s a struggle to get the puppy to understand that this is where she’s supposed to do her business. As for a bed, Karen ends up constructing one out of a blanket. That first night, Karen looks mournfully down at the dog, who seems confused as to why she cannot follow her new friends into the bed.

“She cannot sleep in our bed,” Frank says. “There’s not enough room, especially when she’s older."

“I know,” says Karen, with a small sigh. Tansy begins chewing on her new blanket. She’ll probably shred it in a week.

That first night, they don’t sleep much. The dog keeps getting up and sniffing at things and they haven’t quite managed to puppy-proof everything yet, so Frank has to keep getting up to make sure Tansy hasn’t gotten into something she shouldn’t. They wake at five in the morning to the sound of Tansy drinking out of the toilet and neither one of them has the energy to stop her.

Training begins immediately. She has to be taught the leash is not for chewing. At first, Tansy seems to regard it as some kind of tug-of-war game and begins grabbing hold of her lead and trying to play. Frank drops the leash so there’s nothing fun about it, and takes hold of her collar instead. She dances around for a moment, then wilts when she realizes they’re not playing. He picks up the lead again and she lunges for it. He distracts her with ear scratches.

Rinse and repeat. Eventually she learns that the moment she tries to play with the leash, it goes away—and she loses interest.

Karen is the one to begin work on commands such as ‘sit’ and ‘stay.’ She has less success, as Tansy seems to regard any moment she isn’t cuddling with someone as a moment wasted.

“At least she figured out that she’s not allowed in bed,” Karen says, a bit resigned after another hour of trying to teach Tansy to stay in one spot. Instead, Tansy has been insisting on rushing forward and throwing herself in Karen’s lap, hoping for belly rubs. Karen obliges her and the dog’s eyes droop happily.

Tansy eases something in him—it’s like taking a full breath of air for the first time in months. He didn’t even realize he was starving for it. The dog is sweet and kind and all joy; even some of the other prisoners soften when they see her. Men that would have eyed Frank with suspicion and anger, and Karen with contemplation and something far darker, are suddenly smiling at the dog instead.

And then there’s Karen. He doesn’t think he has ever seen her smile so often. Tansy gives her something to focus on, something to distract her. And all right, maybe it gives him a distraction, too. There are always things to considered: when she needs to be walked, her feeding schedule, if she’s managed to use the piddle pad, if she hasn’t managed to use the piddle pad, and how to keep their possessions from becoming chew toys. Frank loses a pairs of shower shoes to Tansy; he finds her one morning with a giant plastic flip-flop wedged between her tiny jaws. “You know I need those,” he tells her.

Tansy wags her tail at him.

Lucero ends up knitting chew toys for her—well, he says it’s knitting but it looks just like tightly braided rope. Luckily Tansy takes to these toys and starts leaving their shoes alone. Lucero is taken with the dog and he’s perfectly happy to puppy-sit when Frank and Karen need a rare break to themselves. “They’re two of a kind,” Frank murmurs, as he dumps the piddle pad into the toilet.

“You mean because Lucero and Tansy are both adorable?” asks Karen.

“Because they’ll both eat anything.”

It’s true—Frank has had to hide all of their commissary food on a top shelf.

“You love her,” says Karen. She is collecting their dirty laundry—covered in dog hair—and is putting it into the mesh wash bags.

Frank glances at Tansy’s blanket-bed. Truth is, he does love her. Even if it’s only been a few weeks, the puppy has become part of his life and he wouldn’t change a goddamn thing. But he’s never been one for flowery confessions.

“Glad you thought to apply to that program,” he says. “Turned out all right.”

Karen smiles at him, and he knows that she understands.

February blurs into March.

Lucero’s old roommate is transferred and he gets a new one—a hard case sent to prison for domestic violence. Lucero ends up with a black eye within a week, but he tells Frank not to interfere. “It’s my job to deal with it, man,” he says quietly to Frank. Karen is fussing over the younger man, pressing a cold, wet washcloth to his eye and going for painkillers.

Part of Frank wants to protest, but he doesn’t. Lucero’s right; Frank can’t be there every moment of the day to defend the kid.

Lucero kneels down to pet Tansy, who happily accepts belly rubs until she falls asleep sprawled on the floor. “I’ll see you later,” says Lucero, and leaves quietly.

Karen watches him go, worry written across her face. “There’s got to be something,” she murmurs, as if to herself.

“Not a lot we can do,” says Frank. This is one of the most infuriating things about prison—his own sense of powerlessness. “The COs might get involved if Lucero goes to them, but odds are he won’t. Too dangerous.”

“Maybe if I talked to someone,” Karen says helplessly, but Frank shakes his head.

“Rumor is that the new guy raped and strangled his wife after she caught him hurting their kid,” he says, more curtly than he intends. “You’re not getting near this.”

She has that look on her face—one he recognizes.

“I know,” he says. “It’s all bullshit. And it sucks we can’t do much. But if you want me to kill the guy, I’ll end up in solitary again and you and Lucero—”

“I wouldn’t ask you to kill him,” Karen says, startled. Her frown deepens. There are thoughts moving behind her eyes, ones he can’t quite get a handle on. “I mean… would you?”

“Would I kill him?” asks Frank. The answer comes without hesitation. “Yeah. I would. And I wouldn’t lose a moment’s sleep over it.” He exhales. “Probably makes me an asshole, but it’s true. Some people don’t deserve second chances.”

Karen remains quiet for a few minutes. Tansy wakes up and walks over to her, licking Karen’s hands. Karen picks her up and puts Tansy in her lap, holding the dog close. Tansy looks pleased, at least.

“How old is his kid?” she asks quietly.

Frank heard the rumors in the laundry room; he listens, even if he rarely talks. “Three-year-old daughter,” he says heavily.

Karen looks down at Tansy. The puppy licks her cheek.

“Yeah, I wouldn’t lose any sleep, either,” Karen says softly. “But I don’t want you killing anyone, not if you don’t have to.” She meets his eyes. “Okay?”

Frank nods. “Okay.”

In the end, it isn’t Frank that does it. The man gets on the wrong side of one of the gangs within two weeks.

Lucero ends up with another roommate. This one is new, a drug runner put behind bars for the first time, and keeps to himself with a kind of wild-eyed terror. He won’t be any trouble.

And life at the prison goes on.

It’s in March that it happens.

In hindsight, Frank should have realized it sooner. He should have realized it months ago, when he buried his face into Karen’s shoulder and held her like a drowning man grips a rope. He should have realized it the night that they drank together and he gave her truths he has never given anyone. He should have realized it any number of times, but he didn’t.

He realizes it on March seventh, when Karen is on the floor with the puppy.

Karen has been diligently trying to teach Tansy to sit. Frank is sitting on the bed, writing a letter to Bill, when it happens.

“Sit,” Karen says.

Tansy sits.

“Oh my god,” says Karen, so excited that the puppy leaps up. “Oh, good girl! You’re such a good girl!”

Tansy bounces around her, apparently overjoyed although unknowing why. She jumps on Karen, licking every bit of skin she can find.

Karen laughs, her gaze sliding up to meet his. He feels that look like an electric shock, like every nerve has been set aflame.

It’s in that moment he realizes.

He’s in love with her.

He’s completely and utterly gone on her.

It isn’t just that Karen is beautiful and kind and so damned smart. It’s that she gets him in a way he thought no one could—those darkest parts of himself that even he can’t untangle half the time. She’s angry and she’s stubborn and she doesn’t know when to back off, and he loves her.

That thought comes with a deep twist of pain, like someone shoved a knife up beneath his breastbone. It feels like a betrayal to love her, even if on some intellectual level, he knows it isn’t. He told Maria that if anything ever happened to him, she should date again. Find someone that was good with the kids and made her happy—because if he died overseas, he wouldn’t have wanted his family to mourn forever.

But they’re gone and he’s not.

He looks at Karen—now she is trying to get Tansy to sit a second time, but the puppy is more interested in play time. She licks at Karen’s face hopefully and Karen is laughing. “Come on, if you want ear scratches you have to sit for it.”

Fuck. He loves her.

And nothing, nothing is ever going to happen because it can’t. Because she still needs him in here, because he’s a scarred-up ex-soldier and a murderer, because she deserves more than he could ever give her. She’s good and kind and so much better than he will ever be.

That night, after Tansy is in her bed, Frank hesitates before laying down. Karen is on her side of the bed, knotting her hair at the base of her neck. It doesn’t matter; he’ll still find blonde hairs in the bedding, on his clothes, in his mouth.

“She’s making progress,” Karen says, flashing him a grin over her shoulder. Her jumpsuit has slipped down, revealing a slant of bare skin along her shoulder. He has to glance away.

Sleeping beside her feels… charged. He’s been doing so for nearly six months now, but that was before.

“Hey,” says Karen, concerned. “You okay?”

She’s too good at reading him. “Just a little tired,” he says. It’s one of the rare times he lies to her, but he has to. She can’t know—she can’t ever know. He won’t put that on her, not when it could hurt her. He won’t be the reason she’s uncomfortable or afraid. He won’t.

She doesn’t press. But that night, he feels her hand reach for his. In the moments before waking and sleeping, he allows himself this one pleasure. His palm against hers, fingers intertwined.

The next day, they’re readying themselves for breakfast when a CO stops by. “You’re late,” he says to Karen, irritated. It isn’t the corrupt CO, but another—a new guy with red hair and freckles. “You were supposed to be at visitation five minutes ago. We bussed in an outside CO just to search you. The private room is booked.”

Karen just looks confused. Frank resists the urge to step forward, to loom over this smaller man. It won’t help.

“I don’t have any visitation scheduled today,” Karen says, brows drawn together. “I don’t—”

The CO lets out an impatient breath. “Your lawyers are here.”

Chapter Text

There are two men waiting for her.

She’s never been in the private visitation room: this is reserved for rich prisoners to converse with family or legal counsel. But somehow, Karen finds herself sitting at a table that is bolted to the floor, on a chair that is also bolted to the floor. Her hands are chained to the table, cuffed so that she cannot touch them.

“Is that really necessary?” says one of the men. His dirty blonde hair is a bit too long to look professional, but his suit is crisp and neat.

The CO doesn’t reply; he merely gives the lawyer a sharp glance, then rises and says, “You have an hour.” He shuts the door behind him, and for the first time, Karen realizes she’s sitting alone, in a room with two men she does not know. And her wrists are chained. Her heartbeat quickens. If they were sent by Union Allied, this could be the end she’s been having nightmares about. All of Frank’s well-meaning efforts to keep her alive could all be for naught.

“Hey, hey,” says the other lawyer. He has short, dark hair and sunglasses. It takes her a moment to see a white cane resting against the table. He’s blind. “It’s okay. We’re here to help.”

“Who are you?” asks Karen stiffly. “You’re not my lawyers.”

“You’re right,” says the first one. He sits down across from Karen, smiling brightly at her. “But we could be, if you let us.”

She glances from one to the other.

“We’re Nelson and Murdock,” says the second one. He gestures at the blonde man. “This is Foggy Nelson and I’m Matt. Matt Murdock.”

These guys look like they’re barely out of law school. “How long have you been practicing?” she asks.

Murdock’s mouth twitches into a thin smile. “If you accept us as your lawyers, about fifteen minutes.”

She snorts. She knew this was too good to be true.

“But,” says Nelson, “your friend seemed to think we were the best for the job.”

A frown pulls at her mouth. “What friend?”

“A Mr. Curtis Hoyle,” says Murdock, “was the one to come speak with us about your situation.”

Curtis. Curtis Hoyle. That’s Frank’s friend, the one who writes and sends books. Why would he have been looking for a lawyer for her?

Frank. Of course it had to be Frank.

“Ms. Page,” says Murdock. He has a good bedside manner, she’ll give him that. His voice is all warmth and disarming softness. “We know you’ve had a hard time in here. What you’ve gone through—I can’t even imagine. Now I know we aren’t the most experienced, but I promise you—we’re the real thing. And we want to help.”

Karen swallows. Her chest is a little tight; she has almost forgotten that there are good people in the world. “Okay,” she says quietly.

Nelson opens a small notepad, tapping a pen against it. “Can you tell us what your situation is in here?”

Karen looks down at her chained hands. “What do you mean?”

“How long have you been here?”

“Since September.”

Nelson looks sharply at Murdock. The other man’s gaze is hidden behind those sunglasses, but Karen watches his mouth tighten. “They said it was because of overcrowding,” Nelson said. “That’s the answer that Mr. Hoyle told us. There wasn’t room in a women’s facility.”

“Yeah, that’s what they said,” Karen replies, with a listless little shrug.

“What kind of housing do they have you in?” Murdock asks.

Karen hesitates. She isn’t even sure why she doesn’t want to say, but there’s something personal in her answer. “I have a roommate.”

Nelson’s pen jerks across the page, leaving a crooked line. “What?”

Even Murdock straightens, his hand reaching for the side of the table. “You’re in general population?”


“Who’s your roommate?” Now Nelson is scribbling rapidly, looking as though every single birthday gift he’s ever hoped for has been set before him. His eagerness spills over into his voice.

Karen hesitates a second time. But it isn’t a secret. “Frank Castle.”

Nelson drops his pen.

Murdock draws in a sharp breath, knuckles white on the table.

She knows what they’re thinking. She knows because it’s what every other inmate has been thinking this whole time—that the Punisher took the only women in this prison as his own personal sex slave. She wonders how they’d react if she told them that she’s the one who is attracted to him, not the other way around. 

“You share a cell with the Punisher?” asks Nelson. He’s doing a bad job of hiding his own horror and Murdock’s hand moves to Nelson’s arm, squeezing lightly. Silent communication passes between them.

She wants to tell them that they’re wrong. Frank Castle is the best thing to happen to her since she was arrested. But if she starts defending him, she knows they’ll probably think it’s Stockholm Syndrome or something along those lines. They’ll think she’s lost her mind. They don’t know Frank, haven’t seen him fold laundry with military precision or get lost in a book or spend hours trying to teach a puppy that the leash is not for chewing. He isn’t a person to them. 

They ask her more questions—about her trial and sentencing, about the attack on her in the jail before she came here. She tells them little about her supposed crime, because they aren’t truly her lawyers. Not yet. When the hour is up, both lawyers rise. “We’re going to do our best for you, if you’ll let us take your case,” Murdock says gently.

She wants to believe him, but she can’t.

“How much is this going to cost me?” she asks. “If I did decide to hire you?”

Murdock picks up his cain. “It’s been taken care of,” he says, before the CO returns and escorts both of them out. “We’ll be waiting for your call, Ms. Page.”

Tansy is sitting beside Frank on the floor of their cell, her head pillowed on his thigh. When Karen walks into the room, the puppy's tail wags eagerly. Frank’s gaze rises to meet hers; his face is impassive but she can see the slight twitch of his fingers against Tansy’s collar. He’s uneasy—and she knows why.

“You asked Curtis to find those lawyers for me,” she says, without a greeting. She’s certain of it. Even if the lawyers hadn’t mentioned Curtis’s name, there’s only one person who has ever believed her, who ever thought she was innocent. And he’s sitting right in front of her.

To his credit, he doesn’t deny it. “Yeah. I did.”

“And he’s paying for them?”

Frank shakes his head.

“You’re paying for them,” Karen says, more sharply than she intended.

A hesitation, then a nod. “Karen,” Frank says quietly. “I know we said no more lies but—Curt wasn’t sure if he could find anyone to help. I didn’t want to get your hopes up. I asked him months ago, after we first started rooming together. The fact it took this long… whoever framed you did a damn good job of making sure no lawyer would come near this. Not sure how he managed to find two lawyers willing to take the case.”

“Probably because they started their own practice about two hours ago,” says Karen tartly. “I’d be their first case.” Frank stays on the floor, his hand resting on Tansy’s neck. He looks as though he’s trying to remain still for her sake. Karen exhales hard, pressing a hand to her mouth. The breath blows through her fingers.

She isn’t angry with him, not really. It’s just—it’s just hard. She hasn’t had hope for months, and now that someone dares offer it to her… she cannot trust it.

“I wasn’t going to just let you rot here, okay?” says Frank. “Not if I could do something to change it.”

She goes to him, sitting down on the other side of Tansy. The puppy rolls onto her back, forelegs waving in the air. Karen rubs her belly absentmindedly. “I know. Shit. I think I’m just—I’m a little thrown. I wasn’t expecting this.”

“What’d they say?” Frank asks, as if this is truly what he’s wanted to know all along. “How’d it go?”

She sighs. “They asked a lot of questions about my circumstances here. It sounded like they’re going to try and find me a place in a women’s facility, maybe build a case against my being here.”

He nods. “They find out you’re rooming with the Punisher?”

She gives him a flat look. “I told them I’m rooming with Frank Castle.”

“Good,” he says curtly. “That’ll light a fire under their asses. No judge in their right mind would condone this, bribes or not. If it got out, their reputation would be shot.”

She pulls her knees closer to her chest. “I haven’t hired them, not officially.”

He looks at her sharply. “Why the hell not?”

She shrugs.

She isn’t sure how to continue that sentence, so she goes quiet. Part of her longs to be free of this place, but another part fears leaving it. She’ll still be a prisoner, just in a different prison—and she won’t know that prison like she does this one. And Frank won’t be around to help her. Tansy won’t be with her. She won’t have Lucero. She won’t know the hallways or meals or how to act. She’s never even been in a women’s prison; she only ever spent time in the temporary jail before coming here. She’ll supposedly be safer in a different place. She won’t have to worry about being assaulted—or will she? She’s heard horror stories of COs taking liberties, although she doesn’t know how much is myth and how much is truth.

Her head aches. She’s tired and dirty and after seeing those lawyers in their crisp suits, all she really wants is to reclaim a bit of dignity.

“You want to go take a shower?” she asks. She knows she’ll feel better afterward, and besides, Tansy enjoys biting at the water. “I could really use one.”

Frank’s face softens a little. “Yeah, sounds good. Come on, Tans.”

Tansy hauls herself to her feet, reluctantly forgoing any more belly rubs.

They practice making Tansy heel on the way to the showers; she has a tendency to bounce ahead and keeps giving them reproachful looks when Frank tells her to stop. Finally, with a sigh, she trudges alongside them. “She looks like you just took away her favorite yarn toy,” Karen says, grinning.

“That sad face won’t work on me,” he replies.

“Oh, yes, you’re the disciplinarian,” says Karen, with a small smile. “Big scary Frank Castle. Who probably has jerky in his pocket at this very moment because he knows the dog likes it.”

Frank shrugs. “Can’t prove anything.”

When they reach the shower lockers, Karen begins pulling off her clothes with little thought. She has tried to keep showering casual, even after her New Years realization. She shucks off her clothes with brisk efficiency, tucking them into a locker. She wraps a towel around herself, pulling on her shower shoes. She tries not to glance at Frank; she isn’t sure if it’s right to look at him, not when she knows she can’t look at him like a friend. Not when she’s looking for her own sake.

She tries to concentrate on the simple act of taking Tansy’s lead and walking toward the showers. Frank falls into step beside her.

Things have been quiet. No one has come after her in months, not since Jackson. She isn’t sure if it’s because Frank killing those guys deterred any would-be attackers or if it’s just simple luck that she’s been left alone. It’s made for easier showers; she no longer regards every trip like an ordeal.

The showers are mostly empty; it’s just before dinner and most other inmates will be headed for the mess hall or finishing up work details. Tansy bounces alongside Karen, chasing her stubby tail for a few steps. “Hey, none of that,” Karen laughs, tugging gently on the leash. “Come on, sweetie. You could use a shower, too. You smell like dog.”

Tansy wags her tail so hard she nearly knocks herself off balance.

Frank snorts. “She would like showers, wouldn’t she?” He reaches down to rub the puppy’s ears. “Come on, we should—”

His voice cuts off and his gaze goes past Karen. Something in his face makes her heartbeat quicken and she turns.

The showers aren’t empty—not anymore. There are men walking into the room, so many men. And Karen recognizes none of them.

“Are they new?” she says quietly.

Frank’s gaze is razor-sharp, never wavering from the newcomers. “Yeah. Must’ve been a transfer.”

Karen takes in as many details as she can in a few glances: the men are white, burly, from twenties to upper fifties, and most of them are heavily scarred or tattooed. They look like—

“Bikers?” she breathes.

Frank’s jaw clenches so hard she hears his teeth creak. “Dogs of Hell.”

Karen inhales sharply. She still remembers Frank’s words as though she heard them mere moments ago.

It was a gang shooting. I found that out later—the Cartel, the Irish, and the Dogs of Hell. We were caught in the crossfire—we just… there wasn’t any place to run.

These men are part of the gang that killed his family. Part of the gang that Frank took great pleasure in hunting down.

If they know who he is, they’ll probably try to kill him. Even if they don’t know, Karen knows her very presence is a provocation. This entire situation is like spilled gasoline, just waiting for a match. The bikers are milling out into the showers, filling up every stall quickly. Karen and Frank retreat toward the back wall.

“Don’t make eye contact,” Frank murmurs. “Don’t even look at them, okay?” His hand is between her bare shoulder blades.

She keeps her eyes down.

“Come on, Tansy,” she murmurs to the dog. There’s no time to wash Tansy, so she attaches the leash to a hook meant for towels. The puppy sits with a disappointed gust of breath.

Normally, Frank takes the shower beside hers, so she’s up against the wall and he’s between her and any potential threats. But the showers are filling up fast—and the only one left is the farthest shower, the one up against the wall. “No time,” Frank says quietly. “Longer we stay here, more chance someone tries something.”

“We share, then,” Karen says. Her eyes are still downcast, so she can’t see his face. But she feels his hand tense against her back. She should have known he wouldn’t want to. “I’m sorry, I know it isn’t ideal, but if these guys don’t already think I’m your… kept woman, then this will give them a hint.”

“You’re right,” Frank says, after a moment’s hesitation.

The showers aren’t large. Karen stands under the stream first, wetting her shorter hair, then ducks to one side to pour a bit of shampoo into her palm. She scrubs it into her hair while Frank uses the water. He’s in such a hurry he’s forgoing shampoo all together, just scrubbing a bar of soap along his skin and into his hair. She watches his hands pass over himself, across his chest and down his stomach, up his sides and under his arms.

She averts her gaze, feeling a flush creep across her face. It isn’t like she’s never seen him naked before; she’s been seeing him naked for months. But this is the first time she’s been mere inches away and keenly aware of their proximity. She turns away, her elbow hitting the ceramic wall. She winces, stumbling on the slick tiled floor. She has to put a hand out, trying to steady herself.

“Hey, hey.” Frank’s hands are on her, water streaming over them both. “You okay?”

She makes the mistake of looking up.

His eyes are dark, full of concern. That’s what hits her the hardest—that they’re naked, surrounded by people who want Frank dead and he’s worried about her.

It feels like the room tilts off its access for a few moments and leaves her breathless. A feeling not unlike panic rises within her. This isn’t just attraction; it goes deeper. It hurts, aching behind her ribs.

Oh shit, she thinks. Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit—

“Hey,” Frank says again. He must see some of the fear in her face, because his hardens. He hasn’t released her, his hands a steady presence on her upper arms. “S’okay. Just rinse your hair and we’ll get out of here.”

He thinks she’s scared of the bikers, but he couldn’t be more wrong.

She steps beneath the stream of hot water, rinsing away the shampoo on reflex. Every movement feels automated, instinctual. Her mind has shut down, frozen with the knowledge that she wants to shy away from. They finish showering in record time; Karen is just shutting off the water when Frank leans out of the stall and retrieves their towels. He hands her the first towel and she wraps it around herself, and then she grabs Tansy’s leash. The dog wags her tail only twice; she must have picked up on Karen and Frank’s moods, because she is more subdued.

“Well, look at that.” There’s a man striding toward them—all burly muscle and tattooed forearms. “No one told me this place was coed.”

Karen’s fingers tighten on the edge of her towel.

Frank doesn’t say a word but she can see the flex of his fingers, the hardness of his jaw. He shifts on the balls of his feet, keeping his shoulders angled between Karen and the biker.

The biker gives Frank an obvious once-over. “You her bodyguard? Because you’re too damned ugly to keep a girl like that.” He nods at Karen. “What’d it cost me, sweetheart?”

“It’s cost seven men their lives so far,” says Frank evenly. “You want to make that eight?”

The biker’s gaze slides back to Frank. “You some kind of tough guy?” The biker stands a good foot taller than Frank and he seems more amused than threatened.

“Ask the Dogs of Hell that rode out of New York,” Frank says, voice soft. “Or you could, if any had survived.”

The biker’s expression blanks—it’s like watching a tv change its channel. All of the biker’s attention leaves Karen and snaps to Frank. Realization and cold fury flare in his face and Karen knows that they’re just moments away from being in the middle of a fight.

“Well, well, boys,” says the biker quietly. “The Punisher’s come to play.”

A few of the other bikers hear him, and the mood of the room shifts. It hardens, tightens in almost a visceral way. Karen can feel the shift, sense the sudden churning fury of the room. Some of these men probably lost friends, maybe even brothers or uncles. And now they’re standing in the room with Frank Castle, and Frank is unarmed and undefended. He’s wearing only a towel, for goodness sake. There’s got to be at least ten bikers, and while Karen has seen him fight and knows what gift he has for it, there’s no way they can make it out of this. Not unscathed. And they have Tansy to think about. The dog presses herself against Karen’s bare leg, whining quietly. She’s sensed the change, too.

The match has been lit; all it has to do is fall.

Karen has to stop it. She cannot let it begin, because once it does, there’ll be no end.

A wild thought occurs to her, and maybe, once upon a time, she would have been too afraid to do it. But now she has too much to lose. Tansy—and Frank.

“Get out of our way,” Karen snarls, and she throws the only thing she can at the biker’s face: her damp towel. He catches it, fumbling as if he expects it to be a weapon, but when he drops it, his eyes widen. She stands there, utterly naked, and abruptly every man’s gaze snaps toward her. Surprise deflates the rising anger.

There’s no room for embarrassment. Karen takes Frank’s hand and strides down the line of showers. Let them look. Let them gawk at the only naked woman they’ve seen in months, years, maybe even decades. They’re so startled that no one makes a move, and no one wants to look away long enough to concoct a plan with anyone else.

It’s exactly what Karen wanted—a distraction.

Frank’s fingers tighten around hers, and his step quickens.

And then she and Frank are out of the showers and in the locker room, to the surprise of a few other bikers. Again, shock makes them go still.

Frank yanks off his own towel and wraps it around her shoulders tightly. “The fuck was that?” he says, voice quiet and furious.

“Getting us out of there alive,” she replies, equally quiet and angry. “I know you hate those guys, but you can’t fight them. Not like that.”

“So you thought a striptease was preferable?” he snaps.

“Yes.” Her teeth clench. “I’m not watching you bleed out again, Frank. If it means I have to—”

“No,” he snarls. “You are not going to. Whatever it is you think you’d do, don’t. Don’t think about it. Don’t do it. If it’s gonna draw the eye of every scumbag in this place, you don’t do it. I’m not worth it.”

“You are to me,” she replies, every word tight. And fuck, those are the words that make her ache, that have driven all of the certainty out of her.

Frank flinches. Actually flinches, which hurts even more. His gaze falls away, and he seems to realize their situation: her standing with only a towel around her shoulders, her back to the lockers, and him naked only a few inches away, his hands still holding the towel in place. He steps back, the kneels to grab the fallen leash. Tansy whines again, uncertain of what’s happening. “Get dressed,” Frank ays, with a glance at the bikers. They are unrepentantly watching the scene with avid interest.

Karen pulls on her clothes with shaking hands. Frank manages to pull on his jumpsuit in record time and they are walking out of the showers before she has time to gather her thoughts.

She feels sick with adrenaline and knowledge.

When they get back to their cell, Frank lets Tansy off the lead. She goes to her piddle pad and uses it, then trots back over to them, looking for praise. Karen rubs her ears and murmurs mindless words of reassurance. Frank stands near the entrance to the cell, gaze raking back and forth.

“You think someone’s going to come here?” she asks.

A muscle twitches in his neck. “After that? Only question of when.”

“You think they’re coming for me or you?” she asks. She’s too worn out to be careful.

“Yes,” he replies curtly.

They don’t go to dinner that night; she and Frank eat instant ramen in their cell. The mess hall would be too visible, and Frank says they should let tempers fade. Karen is fine with that and spends the rest of the evening playing with Tansy. The puppy has begun to sit with more regularity and Karen is trying to teach her to let go of toys on command. Frank takes up sentry by the door, a book in hand. She isn’t sure he ever turns a page.

That night, when the doors have locked and they’re as safe as they can be, Frank finally relaxes. Only a little. He rubs Tansy’s ears and practices teaching her to stay for twenty minutes before coming to bed. He takes up his place beside Karen, and she feels him settle behind her.

“I hate feeling like that,” he says. His breath brushes the skin of her neck and she quashes a shiver.

“Like what?” she says, voice soft. It feels a little like that night when they were talking at New Years—voices quiet in the dark.

“Like my heart was pounding out of my goddamn chest,” he replies, after a moment. “Scared the shit out of me.”

“Sorry,” she says, erring on the side of contriteness. Because she didn’t want to scare him back there—she just wanted him safe. And while that’s never going to happen as long as they’re behind bars, if there’s something she can do to protect him, she will.

“What changed?” she says.

He glances at her. “What?”

She has seen him fight several times now, and all she’s ever glimpsed is a steely determination and fury. Frank has never once seemed frightened by the thought of violence.

“You’ve never been scared of a fight before,” she says. “I mean—you’re not stupid, I know you’re not. You’re not charging into every potential brawl. But you’ve also… I mean, you told me back when we were training… you weren’t scared of dying.”

“I’m not,” he says. He rubs a hand across his face, dragging his fingertips over his eyes. He looks abruptly tired and she wants him to sit down, to set aside some of the burdens he’s taken upon himself.

“I never took them into battle with me,” Frank murmurs, after another few moments.

“Who?” asks Karen. She wishes she could turn over and face him, but she cannot. Not in this narrow bed. Not without making more contact.

“My family,” Frank says heavily. “When I was—when I was a marine, that’s what I was. When I was back at camp or taking some time on base, I’d write letters, call, talk about them. But out in the field… when it was life or death—you can’t afford to be thinking about anything else. You start thinking about family when you’re in a firefight, you start thinking about how you might never see them again—and then you make mistakes. I did that once and it cost Curt his leg.”

Karen presses a hand to her mouth.

Frank continues, “Point is, I couldn’t think about my family when I went into battle because it would’ve fucked things up. Because they mattered, and I couldn’t afford to let anything other than victory matter. My family was safe—or at least, I thought they were. So I could just… tuck them away, leave them behind when I went on a mission. I was always good at that shit—compartmentalizing. But in here, I can’t do that. There’s no tucking you away, no leaving you behind. Because every moment you’re in here, you’re in danger, and I can’t stop thinking about that. I wasn’t afraid because before you showed up, I didn’t have anything to lose. But now there’s you and Tans.”

Karen can’t breath for a few moments. Is he comparing Karen and Tansy to Maria and his kids? Karen shies away from even thinking about that—because surely, it can’t be true. It’s not the same; he feels responsible for Karen, that’s it. Just like he’d feel that way about any other innocent in this place.

“I need you out of this,” he says quietly. “If anything happened to you, I’d—”

His voice breaks and he doesn’t continue.

She stays quiet and still. Frank is tense behind her, and there’s the click of nails on cement as Tansy goes to drink from her water bowl.

Part of her wants to cry, even if she isn’t entirely sure why.

She can’t be the reason he gets hurt again. If that means she has to go to a women’s facility, then so be it.

“Okay,” she whispers. “I’ll hire those lawyers.”

There’s quiet, then Frank’s breath against her neck as he says, “Okay.”

Neither of them fall asleep for a very, very long time.

Karen makes the call the next morning.

The next few days are uneventful. The bikers still look at Frank like they want to take him apart and at Karen like they want to dismantle her in other ways, but she ignores them. It isn’t that she has stopped being afraid of this place, but her fear has taken another form. She thinks about Frank, instead.

He’s part of her now, and it came on so gradually she didn’t notice. When she sees what’s for lunch, she’ll smile if she knows it’s something Frank will like; she knows how he likes his coffee and the sound of his snoring; she knows when he comes awake from a nightmare or if he’s just having trouble sleeping; she smells like him most of the time—soap and laundry detergent, a smell he carries back from work detail.

And she worries. When the bikers eye Frank, her heart throbs with unease.

She couldn’t care less what those men might do to her. But the thought of Frank or Tansy hurt makes her heartbeat quicken.

She understands what he meant that night—about carrying her into battle with him.

It’s why Karen hasn’t allowed herself to truly care about someone in years, not since she left home. There were brushes with romance, a few dates here and there, but never anything serious. Not since the first man she loved tried to beat her brother to death. That kind of thing leaves a scar, even if it isn't as visible as the ones she acquired in the car accident.

Lucero joins them for a game of poker in the rec room, which is mostly an excuse to pet Tansy. He tells them about receiving a letter from his sister, saying she is pregnant again. There’s happiness, but it’s tinged with regret. Lucero probably won’t see the child until they’re nearly five years old.

At least the puppy is a good distraction. Lucero gives her another yarn chew-toy and Tansy wants to play tug of war with it, her tail wagging hard as she tries to pull it from Lucero’s grip.

“Heard you got into it with a few bikers,” he says, glancing over the table.

Frank shrugs. “Assholes,” he says simply.

That makes Karen smile. “Such a charmer.”

Frank gives her a flat look that softens immediately when he sees her grin. “Maybe if I said ‘please’ next time, they’d back off.”

Lucero shakes his head. “This is going to end well, I’m sure.”

The lawyers return.

They go over the details of what happened to her coworker. She leaves out any mention of the flash drive, sticking only to the facts that she knows. Still, there’s a lot of ground to cover. Murdock is the one to ask the questions; his voice is gentle and soft and Karen looks into his face. Even with the sunglasses, she can tell he’s a good-looking man. The kind that she would have given another glance if they’d met at a bar. But now she’s sitting at a table, her wrists chained together, while he asks about what kind of knife she found in her hand when she awoke covered in blood.

Nelson is the one taking the notes, tossing in his own question or remark every once in a while. This must be their dynamic—one taking the lead while the other provides backup.

Karen answers as honestly as she can, and this time, they’re given an entire afternoon to converse. Karen isn’t sure how Murdock wrangled that kind of time out of the COs, but she isn’t complaining. Her throat is dry and raspy, but she can’t drink with her hands bound and she sure as hell isn’t going to ask for help.

Finally, when they’re finished, the lawyers look at Karen with something like satisfaction.

“You should know, we’ve already begun filing an appeal,” says Murdock.

Karen blinks a few times. “To get me out of a men’s prison?”

Nelson grins. It’s the kind of smile that makes him look mischievous and a little boyish.

“No, Ms. Page,” Murdock says, as gentle as ever. “I mean, we’re appealing the charges. Your entire arrest—the attack on you in jail and the mismanagement of your imprisonment… we think we have grounds to get this whole thing overturned.”

Karen can’t breathe, not for a few heartbeats.

It can’t be true.

It can’t be.

She has over a decade left to serve out, felony charges in her file, blood stains in her memories. They can’t just… get her out. Not like that. The world doesn’t work so cleanly, doesn’t give without taking.

She doesn’t believe them.

She can’t believe them.

So she goes on with her life. She rooms with Frank Castle, eats her meals in the mess hall, plays boardgames with Lucero, trains Tansy, reads in those quiet hours of evening, and then she sleeps beside the only man who’s ever made her feel safe—mass murderer or not. Then she repeats that day. She repeats it over and over again.

A month passes.

And she continues not believing in those lawyers—right up until the head CO summons Karen into his office two weeks later and roughly tells her she’ll be released in two days.

She returns to her cell in a daze.

Frank is taking Tansy for a walk; he returns about five minutes after she does. He takes one look at her face and pales, stepping into the cell. “What is it?” he says quietly. “You run into the bikers again? If they touched you, I’ll—”

“No,” she says.

She’s a little light-headed. She doesn’t know how to do this, how to tell him.

The world has been upended again.

It’s all happening too fast.

“They’re getting me out,” she says numbly.

Frank inhales. “You heard from those lawyers? They managed a transfer?” Relief crosses his face—chased by a brow-crease of worry. Karen never would have recognized those emotions in the beginning, but now she knows him so well.

“No,” she says. The words come out slowly, a trickle. “They’re getting me exonerated. They were—they were talking about how the evidence was circumstantial. How there was enough wrongdoing in my arrest that they can get everything thrown out.” She takes a shaky breath. “Some judge agreed. Day after tomorrow. I’ll have to go through a lot of hassle to get my record cleared, but… the lawyers are getting me out.”

Frank’s whole face goes still.

Then he breaks into a smile that makes her heart stutter. It’s the kind of smile she’s never seen before—not even when he first met Tansy or saw her after he got out of the infirmary. This is how Frank Castle must have looked before all of this: before he lost his family and everything he held dear. His grin is wide, crinkling the corners of his eyes and mouth.

“You’re getting out,” he repeats, as if he can’t quite believe it.

“I’m getting out,” she agrees, still disbelieving herself.

Tansy barks happily and hops around them, delighted to take part. Karen reaches down and pets her.

And realizes that soon, she’ll never be able to do this again.

Leaving prison shouldn’t be a sad thing—but the moment she truly considers it, she realizes what she’ll be losing. Tansy, Lucero, Frank. She isn’t sure how she’s going to function out in the real world; she doesn’t have an apartment or a car or a job. She has no money saved up, not after needing so much of it through the entire arrest and trial. She’ll be stepping out into a world become strange because it has gone on without her, into a society that probably still deems her a murderer and… and Union Allied is still out there.

Her evidence is still out there.

That gives a purpose, at least. It hardens her will, gives her something to fight for.

She’s always needed that.

Karen’s last day in prison feels bittersweet.

Lucero is overjoyed when he hears the news—he is all hugs and requests for her to get in touch with his family, saying they’ll befriend her. She agrees to email them once she’s out.

She should pack her meager belongings—but she knows she’ll be taking nothing with her. Not really. The books should stay with Frank; he needs them more. And it’s not like she wants her shower shoes or jumpsuit. She’s been told she’ll get back her old purse and cell phone—although since she hasn’t paid that bill in nearly a year, it’ll be next to useless. Maybe she can sell it for some quick cash.

She still isn’t quite sure where she’s going to go, what she’s going to do. She tries not to think about it as she sorts through her belongings. She doesn’t want it to look like she owns nothing, so she puts her comb and spare socks into a bag. Tansy bounces around her, trying to get Karen to play. Frank leaves for a few hours, saying he has a few errands to run. When he returns, he appears satisfied with himself.

“You should take that copy of Moby Dick with you,” he tells her. It’s one of the classics that Curtis sent again, and Karen hasn’t picked it up. She read it in college and once was enough.

“You could use it as a weapon,” she retorts. “Keep it.”

“Naw.” He picks it up, tucks the heavy book into her bag. “You’ll need something to keep you occupied.”

Tansy whines at him, wagging her tail and he kneels beside the puppy, rubbing her chest and neck.

At least she isn’t leaving him alone in here. There’s some comfort in knowing he has Tansy, because if there’s anyone she trusts with her dog, it’s him. And Tansy will give him something to do.

She’s going to worry about him, she knows. He is truly what tethers her to this place, and as glad as she’ll be to leave it, it still feels like a loss.

That final night in the mess hall, they sit at their usual table. Hodges’ space remains empty, a silent absence that still weighs on Karen. She wishes that Hodges had family—or at least someone that she could talk to when she gets out. Their dinner consists of meatloaf and mashed potatoes, both of which aren’t too bad. There’s the heap of margarine and Frank ends up eating half of her potatoes because she can’t bring herself to eat much. Her stomach is tight with nerves. Tansy sits beneath the table, learning how to deal with the noise and the chaos.

“Well, well,” says someone behind her. “Heard it’s a special night.”

Karen looks up.

It’s that biker, the one who confronted them in the showers and got a towel thrown in his face. His eyes are on Karen, gaze hungry. Karen glares back, defiant.

“I’m not celebrating with you,” she tells him coolly. “So don’t even try.” She feels Tansy brush against her leg and reaches down to take a tighter hold on the leash.

“Thought you might want a night with someone who pays better,” says the biker. “Or pays at all. Heard he’s been keeping you for free.”

Karen snorts. So far, her presence has nearly cost Frank his life.

“You’re getting out, I heard,” says the biker. “Real world isn’t like in here. Can’t find the scariest motherfucker and just attach yourself to them. You’re gonna need cold hard cash if you want to survive.”

“Cash isn’t allowed in here,” she says. 

“And if I had cash, you’d consider it?” His hand comes down on Karen’s shoulder, but Frank moves like a viper. He rips that hand away, and is on his feet in a matter of heartbeats, standing toe-to-toe with the biker. Karen’s pulse has quickened to a gallop and she scrambles to get Tansy’s lead untangled, to push herself upright. She doesn’t want to be sitting if something happens.

“Don’t touch her,” Frank says, in that deadly quiet voice.

He hates them. Karen knows that—he hates all of the gangs that were involved in his family’s deaths. Having one of the Dogs of Hell this close must be agony for him. Which is precisely why this man came over here; he probably wants to provoke Frank, to be the biker who took down the Punisher. Or maybe he wants to drag Karen into this, try and get her release delayed with some kind of brawl.

Karen puts a hand on Frank’s shoulder. “Frank.” His muscles are tight beneath her fingers, ready for action.

Tansy whines and it’s that sound that seems to draw Frank’s attention. He glances down at the puppy, distracted.

The biker tenses and Karen knows, just knows, that he’s about to strike. She trained with Frank for weeks and learned to recognize the slight shift in balance. The biker is going to go after Frank now that he’s distracted by Tansy.

Karen reacts without thinking. She draws her fist tight, steps around Frank, and punches the man as hard as she can. She feels her knuckles slam into his nose and something breaks—and she hopes it isn’t her hand. Pain flares up her arm and then Frank’s arms are around her, half-carrying, half-dragging her away. The biker is cursing, his nose streaming blood.

Someone behind him is laughing—not one of the bikers. “Chica there really nailed you good.”

The biker whirls on him, bloodied and furious. “What’d you say?”

Lucero has Tansy’s leash and he’s hurrying alongside Frank and Karen, all three of them hastening to leave the mess hall before—

She never sees who throws the first punch, but the brawl breaks out and then a siren follows. But they’re out of the mess hall, half-jogging back toward their cell block, and Karen finds herself laughing.

She punched him. And her hand is throbbing but she actually managed to drive him back. It felt good to do something.

“You caused a riot in the mess hall,” Lucero crows, laughing with her.

Tansy bounds alongside him, barking.

Karen half-expects Frank to scold her, but he is just shaking his head in mild amusement.

They part ways—Lucero heading for his own room while Frank, Karen, and Tansy go to theirs. Frank attaches Tansy’s lead to the wall before taking a look at Karen’s hand. It still throbs gently with pain but she can’t bring herself to regret that blow.

“Come on,” he says. “Let’s get this cleaned up.”

She expects him to toss her the first aid kit, but he’s the one who turns on the sink and lowers her hand beneath the tepid water. He cleans her split knuckles with soap and water, then dries them on a clean towel. A few bandages cover the wounds and her hand feels almost normal. “You’re going to be sore for a few days,” he says, “but that was a good punch. You broke his nose.”

She smiles at him. “I had a good teacher.”

It strikes her that this is how it all began: with them in a cell, her bleeding after defending herself. Him standing at the door, watching for any attackers. That was back when she barely knew him, only knew that he was a single, uncertain place of safety in this entire prison.

It feels like a lifetime ago.

She leaves the prison in the morning.

She spends most of that time hugging and reassuring Tansy. The puppy licks her hands and face, unaware of the nearing separation. Lucero comes to say goodbye with a knitted scarf—so much better than his first attempts. “You’re going to need it out there,” he tells her.

Karen hugs him. Hard. She tries to put everything she can into that hug—all of her affection for him, her gratitude for a friend. He seems to understand, because when Lucero steps away, he looks distraught. “You take care out there, okay?” he says.

She touches his arm. “You, too. Keep an eye on Frank, okay?”

And Lucero does something she’s never seen before. He straightens, shoulders hard, and snaps her a salute—like she’s his superior officer giving him orders. She almost forgot he spent nearly three years in ROTC, training for the army.

Karen hands Tansy’s lead to Lucero. The puppy can’t come with them.

“You be a good girl, Tans,” Karen murmurs, kneeling beside the puppy. “You be good for whoever ends up with you, okay? I love you, girl.”

Tansy nuzzles into her neck, wriggling happily.

Karen stands. Then she turns and walks away before she can look back. She can’t look back.

Frank is waiting for her a few feet down the hallway, her bag in his hand. Tansy whines, barking twice.

“Come on,” Frank says quietly, hand at Karen’s back as they round the corner. Tansy barks again and Karen squeezes her eyes shut, trying to block out the grief. It’s a ten minute walk to the administrative offices where Karen will be officially freed. Frank can’t go all the way with her, but he can at least accompany her to the corridor outside of the offices.

They don’t speak. Karen can’t think of how to say all the things she needs to tell him.

Just before they reach the offices, Frank puts out a hand and they both halt. She turns to look into his face.

He hasn’t shaved this morning; his chin and jaw are stubbled and his eyes are shadowed. He didn’t sleep well last night, but then again, neither did she.

“Frank,” she says, uncertain of how to tell him goodbye.

He has no such hesitations. “Don’t touch the flash drive,” he tells her. His voice is quiet, so no one will overhear. “Not at first—just, leave it alone.”

She blinks at him. “What?”

“Don’t try to bring Union Allied down now,” he says. “Let them think they won. Give it time.”

He knows. He must have realized what she’s been thinking about. Because he knows her—he knows her better than anyone but her family has ever known her. And that thought brings tears to her eyes.

He must see the shift in her face, because he steps closer, touches her shoulder.

“You stay safe,” he says.

“Tansy,” she begins to say, and he shushes her.

“I will take care of her,” he says. “I promise.”

Her face softens. “I know you will. Don’t get killed in here, okay?”

“Worried about me?” he says, smiling a little.

“Yes,” she says fiercely and then her arms are around his neck and she’s hugging him hard. His hands are at her back, pulling her tightly against him. And it’s like that time after he got out of the infirmary, but this time there are no wounds, no scent of blood or terror. It’s just them. Karen rests her cheek against his shoulder, allowing herself a few seconds of comfort.

“A friend of mine is gonna pick you up,” he says. “Curt. I’ve told you about him."

“Frank, I can’t—”

“There’s something else,” Frank says quietly. He pulls back, just enough so that she can meet his eyes. “Curt’s going to give you a key and an address. It’s—listen, I know it’s probably a mess, but you can stay there, if you want. The heat and water are paid through old accounts; it was set up automatically when I came here. It’s probably dusty as fuck and the sheets won’t be clean, but—”

“Frank,” she says, confused. “What are you talking about?”

He looks at her. “You’re going to need a place to stay. Once you get out. I mean, until you get on your feet again—which you will. But in the meantime… my house. It’s empty, just collecting dust and mold, probably.”

“You want me to stay at your house?” She shakes her head. “Frank—I can’t. It’s your home. I couldn’t—”

“You can,” he says. “No one’s touched it since I woke in that hospital. I couldn’t go back, not after… well. Not after. It’s yours if you want to stay there. For a few days, a few weeks—fuck, if you want to stay there forever, you can. It’s not like I’ll be using it anytime soon.”

“Frank, it’s—”

“Empty,” he says. “Probably growing mold. You’d be doing the neighborhood a favor. Just…” He hesitates. “The pictures. You can throw out anything you want, but the pictures… if you could—”

“I’m not throwing anything out,” she says. “Not without asking first. I’ll pack things away, if you want me to.” She blinks, then frowns—she just realized by making that promise, she accepted staying in the house. “Frank, I—”

“It’s what they would’ve wanted,” he says quietly. “Maria, the kids. If they’d met you—they’d have wanted you to stay with them. It’s what I want. Just stay there until you find your own place again, okay?”

She nods. “Okay.”

Her forehead presses to his. She can feel his unsteady breaths. She doesn’t know what to say or how to say it. She’s terrified to step away, because she’ll probably never touch him again. Not like this, not without any barriers between them. “Frank,” she whispers.

He kisses her cheek. There’s the rasp of rough stubble, but his mouth is warm. She feels the touch go through her whole body. Then he steps back, eyes slightly averted. His voice is soft, like he can barely utter the words. “Go on. Get out of here.”

Her eyes are bright with unshed tears. “Frank, I—”

The door clangs open and one of the COs steps around the corner. “Page? We’re waiting.”

Frank steps back. HIs eye are on hers, even as he retreats.

The CO barks at her to move and she looks at him—and when she glances back, Frank is gone.

Getting out of prison takes nearly the entire day. There is so much paperwork and then more paperwork, and then waiting, and then her things being given back to her and then she changes into street clothes. She’s given a small sum of money and then she’s being escorted outside. Karen stands on the sidewalk outside of the prison, blinking into the bright sunlight. It’s early summer and the air smells like the city. Like humidity and damp concrete and cars.

It’s bewildering and Karen is frozen in place for a few heartbeats. Everything feels too big, too bright and then—


There’s a man waiting for her. He’s dark-skinned, with kind eyes and a good smile. She knows who he must be, even before she asks. “Curtis?”

“That’d be me.”

It feels strange to finally be meeting this man that she’s heard so much about. “I guess I should thank you for the books and my lawyers,” she says.

He shakes his head, his smile becoming a bit rueful. “Nah. I just made a few calls. Glad it worked out.” He gestures her toward a car. “You ready to go?”

Karen glances back at the prison—at the place that was home and torment for so many months.

“Yeah,” she says. “Let’s go.”

Frank takes the walk back to his cell slow. There’s no rush; Lucero is happy to look after Tansy and it’s not like Frank has anyone else waiting for him. When he returns to his room, he finds Lucero tossing Tansy one of her yarn toys.

“She gone?” asks Lucero. He’s making a valiant effort to look happy about it—and he is happy for Karen. But Frank can see the loneliness on the younger man’s face.

“Yeah,” says Frank quietly. “She’s gone.”

Lucero takes a breath. “You want to play some Candyland?”

What Frank wants just walked out the front doors.

Frank may be many things, but a liar isn’t one of them. Not to others—or himself.

He’s in love with her. With her fire and determination, with her impatience, with the way she wants to know things like the truth is all that matters, with her rueful grins and her teasing words. She’s gorgeous and so smart and kind. 

He can’t have her. He can never have her. They’re worlds apart—and he wouldn’t have it any other way.

If she’s out there, she’s safe. 

That’s all that matters. 

Chapter Text

The world feels too big.

Karen sits in the passenger seat of an unfamiliar car, watching New York slide by. Curtis is a restful companion, thank goodness. He merely asks if there’s anywhere she wants to stop, any place she needs to go. Karen shakes her head, so Curtis says, “All right, then.” He’s a careful driver, glancing over his shoulder every time he needs to change lanes or turn. Karen sits with her fingers in her lap. Her clothes are… too tight. The seam of her jeans presses uncomfortably against her thighs. She has spent months in loose jumpsuits; being back in normal clothing feels almost wrong.

“So how is he?” asks Curtis, as they turn off another street. “Last time we talked, Frank mentioned something about a service dog?”

Karen glance at him. Curtis seems like a nice person, and Frank spoke well of him. She tries to force herself to relax. “Yeah. I applied for one and we got it. Her, I mean. She’s a mutt named Tansy. Still a puppy, but she’s smart and learning fast. We’ll train her for eight months or up to a year—or…” She trails off, then clears her throat. “Frank will, I guess.”

“He was always good with animals,” Curtis says. “More of a dog person than a cat person, but I once watched him pry a neighbor kid’s kitten loose from a tree.” He laughs, shaking his head. “Couldn’t find a ladder, and I was never really a tree kind of person, even before this.” He pats his leg fondly. “So he hauled himself up that tree and ended up shoving a kitten into his hoodie’s pocket to climb down.”

Karen smiles a little. She can just see Frank doing that. “That sounds like him.”

“Does it?” Curtis’s gaze slide toward her, then back to the streets. “Most people wouldn’t think so.”

“Most people don’t know him,” says Karen firmly.

Curtis nods. “They don’t,” he agrees.

He drives for nearly an hour, through traffic and across the city. Finally, he pulls into a suburban neighborhood. The house is white, larger than she expected, and there’s a flag hanging from the front porch. She eyes it with a growing dread and yearning at the pit of her stomach; she isn’t sure she wants to go inside, but the truth is, she doesn’t really have anywhere else. And Frank was insistent. 

“Hey,” says Curtis, and hands her an large, manila envelope. “These are the house keys, and a few other things. My card’s in there, too. You need anything, you can text me. I work a nine-to-five, but after that—I’m all yours.”

“What do you do?” she asks, curious.

“I sell insurance,” he says, with a rueful smile. “It pays the bills and I like my coworkers. On weekends, I volunteer at a few places.”

Karen nods. “Yeah. I remember Frank mentioning you ran a few support groups?”

“For vets,” he says. “It’s something I could’ve used when I came back. Figured I’d set something up.” He nods at her. “And I mean it. This isn’t one of those polite offers where I fully expect you to toss my card in the trash. You keep it, and if you need something, you text me. It’s not any trouble, and—and let’s just say I know something about readjusting to normal life after being away from home for a while.”

Her throat tightens but she manages to reply. “Thanks.”

She takes her bag and the envelope and steps out of the car. The windows are dark, the house untouched. Curtis offers to come in with her, but she declines.

He seems like a nice guy, but Karen trusts very few people. And she wants to do this on her own. She reaches into the envelope, glances inside. There’s a set of house keys, as expected. She tugs them out and slides one of the keys into the deadbolt, then another into the doorknob itself. The front door comes out with a groan, as if it’s been months since it was opened.

Karen pushes open the door and steps inside.

It’s dark and dusty. Those are her first thoughts. She fumbles for a light switch and one blinks on. The foyer has shoes lining one wall—a pair of high heels, and a few smaller pairs. Kids shoes. Karen’s gaze drags over grass-stained sneakers and a pair of girls’ flats, then she forces herself to look away. She walks farther into the house.

It feels strange to be here. A little surreal.

The walls are a cheerful, light yellow that seems at odds with the sense of stillness. This is a house that should have the clattering of feet in the hallways, a scattering of a homework at the kitchen table, and a voices. But all is too quiet, too empty. Her foot hits a toy frog that rolls across the hallway and makes her heart hammer too hard. 

She walks by a small table laden with dead, dusty flowers. Sympathy bouquets, she realizes. They were put here—probably by Curtis or another of Frank’s friends—and left to molder. Above the flowers are… pictures. Karen draws in a sharp breath and leans closer.

The frames are smudged with dust but she can see the faces clearly enough. She recognizes them from that single picture that Frank kept in their cell.

Lisa, Frankie, and Maria. And then there’s Frank—a Frank that Karen has never seen before.

He’s younger and smiling wide, his arms thrown around his wife. She looks younger, too, her dark hair shining in the sunlight. They look like they could be in college together. Then there’s Frank kissing the swell of Maria’s pregnant stomach, and then a portrait of a very young girl. Frankie’s pictures come after that—a boy with Frank’s chin and dark hair, holding a sports trophy and smirking at the camera.

Every one of these pictures tells a story of another life, a life that Frank should have been allowed to keep. There’s Frank Castle, soldier, being awarded a medal. There’s Frank Castle, father, holding both his kids. And there’s Frank Castle, husband, as he kisses his wife. Karen has never been one for ghost stories, but this house is haunted. If not by spirits, then by Frank’s memories. And Karen feels a little like an invader, setting foot in this place. Part of her yearns to turn and leave, to find some place less fraught.

But he wanted her to come here.

She lets out a breath.

First things first. She goes to the living room and sits on the couch. Again, it’s dusty and a little damp. There’s a piano nearby and a tv. Karen takes note of the room even as she opens the manila envelope and tips its contents onto the coffee table.

There’s a business card from Curtis, just as he promised. Then there’s a smaller envelope. It has all of the contact information for her lawyers. There’s also a some paperwork that Curtis must have put together: a pamphlet for a sexual violence survivor support group, the contact information for a free health clinic, and the address of the church that he must volunteer at. Karen gazes at the shiny, colorful pages of the pamphlet, her gaze sliding down the words without truly reading them.

She needs to take stock of the house—food, first. Then sleeping arrangements. She goes to the kitchen and sure enough, it’s completely devoid of fresh food. There are dry goods in some of the cupboards: flour, pasta, cans of soup. She plugs in the fridge, checks the water. It’s running, but the sink sputters a little when she turns it on. 

There’s a bodega a few blocks away; Karen remembers driving past it on the way here. She grabs her house key and her purse and walks outside. She half-expects the neighbors to accuse her of breaking in, of squatting. She has no proof that she has permission to be here, and that makes her a little uneasy. But she squares her shoulders and walks through the neighborhood. It’s a cute, residential area. The kind of place someone would want to raise kids and have a family. There’s a football in a nearby yard, a couple walking a dog, and a toddler running about under the watchful eye of a grandparent. Karen feels utterly out of place among them, even when the couple smile at her.

She’s fallen out of step with the world. She’s been out of it for so long.

The bodega isn’t large, but it feels that way. Karen steps inside and gazes about the racks of food with the squirming realization that she doesn’t know what to buy. All of her nerves have driven hunger from her body, but she knows she needs something. So she settles for the basics: milk, coffee, eggs, flour, a few apples, cheddar cheese, and a bagged salad mix. The sight of all the fresh food is wondrous, and Karen finds herself gazing at a row of fresh plums like she can’t quite believe they exist. She also grabs a mini packet of powdered donuts on a whim.

She pays for everything in cash, watches as the clerk rings her up with a kind of lazy indifference. It feels as though Karen is carrying around the word ‘felon’ like some kind of modern Hester Prynne, but no one else seems to have noticed.

Karen carries her bag of food back to the house. It’ll be dark soon, and she wants to have those four walls around her. Everything is still too raw, too new.

And there’s Union Allied to think about, too. If they know she’s been freed—

She tries to ignore that thought; she’ll worry about it later. Now, she settles for putting away the groceries. She’s just putting the milk in the fridge when a knock at the door makes her jump.

She goes still, heart pounding hard, half-hoping that it was a mistake. Maybe a neighbor’s football hitting the roof, or—

The knock comes again. Not from the front door—but the side one.

Karen considers not answering. She considers remaining in the kitchen, quiet and still, but that’s the coward’s way out. She squares her shoulders and strides for the side door. There’s a chain and she makes sure it’s fastened before she unlocks the deadbolt and opens the door a fraction.

There’s a man standing there.

He has a neatly trimmed beard and sleek dark hair. He reminds her a little of a cat—all lean grace and sharp features.

“Hello there,” he says, smiling. “You must be the famous Ms. Page.”

He knows her. How does he know her? She hesitates. “Are you with the press? With—”

He laughs. “No, nothing like that. Sorry, I can see I rattled you. I’m Billy Russo—old friend of Frank’s. Curtis said Frank was letting you stay here.”

“Oh.” So this is Bill—the other friend Frank mentioned. The sender of the bad erotica. She still doesn’t open the door any farther. “May I ask what you’re doing here?”

His smile widens a little. “Careful. That’s good. I mean, I’d be the same, too. Listen, I’m just here because my company set up a security system in the house. I didn’t want anyone vandalizing it or trying to break in, so I took the liberty when I knew Frank wasn’t getting out any time soon. You tripped the alarm when you came in. If you want, I can give you the codes so you won’t have to see me ever again.” He smiles, like they’re in on a joke. 

“Oh,” she says. She did see a small electronic box in the corner, one with lights that flashed red; now she understands. The fact he mentioned Curtis’s name is a good sign, but she’s still wary.

“Here,” he says, and pulls out a pen. “You got a piece of paper? I can write down the code.”

She hesitates. She isn’t sure where to find any paper.

“Maria used to keep a pad beside the phone,” he says, a little gently. “Living room. She kept a landline, even with her cell phone. She wanted to make sure Frank always had a line to call.”

Karen nods then shuts the door behind her and locks it when she walks into the house. Sure enough, there’s a disconnected phone in the living room. She picks up a small pad of paper.

So he knows this place. Probably better than she does.

She’s probably being an asshole.

She unlocks the door and offers Billy Russo an apologetic smile. “Sorry about that. You want to come in for a cup of coffee?”

He nods. “Sure.”

Billy Russo is the one who ends up making the coffee. He knows where Maria kept the filters, and he rinses out the old coffeemaker with ease. Karen studies him as he works, taking in a few details. He’s dressed in a shirt and trousers that look tailor-fitted to his lean body; his hair is carefully styled; his eyes are dark and his hands sure as he pours out two cups of coffee. Karen accepts hers with a nod. “Thank you.”

“I should be thanking you.” Billy leans against the counter.

“For what?” Karen frowns at him. The coffee smells amazing but it’s still too hot to drink.

Billy turns to face her. It occurs to her that maybe she should have asked if he wanted to go to the living room, but it doesn’t feel right to invite him anywhere in this house as if it were hers. It isn’t hers; she is keenly aware of that.

“I haven’t been to visit Frank as much as I should have,” he says. “I’ve been building my new company, and that kind of thing takes a lot of time and work. I’ve tried to send letters, called sometimes, but I know that’s not the same.”

She doesn’t know how to answer that, but Billy goes on.

“Curtis said he was worried about Frank,” says Billy. “Back—a while back. Months ago. Curt went to see him every few weeks like clockwork—he’s always been the best of us. Anyways, he said that Frank was losing himself in there. He was worried about Frank, and so was I.” He blows a breath across his coffee mug, then takes a sip. “I’m glad he had someone in there with him.”

“What did Frank tell you?” asks Karen, a little curiously. She never asked about the specifics of his letters.

“Only that you were placed in a men’s facility against all common sense and decency,” replies Bill. “He said you were a stubborn pain in the ass—which means he likes you, in case you weren’t aware. He’d call me a vain son of a bitch when he was feeling affectionate. Or he’d just hit me in the head with a football.”

Karen smiles. “He mentioned you served together.”

“Yeah.” Billy shrugs one shoulder. “Quite a few tours. When you spend that much time with someone, you either end up at each other’s throats or like family.”

“I’m guessing you were the latter,” she says.

Billy’s smile is both sad and a little wistful. “I liked to think so.” He straightens. “Regardless, I’m glad he had you.”

Karen has to wonder about that word choice; this Billy seems to know Frank well, so perhaps it’s innocent. But there’s something in the way Billy’s gaze slides over her that makes Karen think that Billy is under the impression Frank had her in an entirely carnal sense. Even out here, everyone is probably going to think that, she realizes. When people hear she was rooming with the Punisher, it won’t be any different than it was in prison.

Karen brings her mug to her lips. The coffee spills across her tongue—rich and bitter and it’s the best thing she’s ever tasted. The watered-down instant coffee of prison doesn’t even merit the same name as this beverage. She closes her eyes for the briefest moment, savoring another swallow.

When she opens her eyes, it is to Billy’s gaze on her. She feels abruptly self-conscious, as if caught doing something she shouldn’t.

“Listen,” he says. “I know you’re just out of prison—you’re going to need an adjustment period. But when you’re ready, when you need work, you should call me.” He slips a business card out of his pocket and sets it on the counter.

She’s being inundated by business cards today. She picks it up. The paper is thick, expensive.

ANVIL, it reads.

She lets out a sardonic little laugh. “I don’t think I’m cut out to be anyone’s bodyguard.”

“I need office people, too,” he replies, unperturbed. “Anvil is a growing company. Lots of room for opportunity. We need secretaries.”

She blinks at him. “You looked me up.”

He flashes her a knowing sort of smile. “I did. I’ll admit to some curiosity when Frank mentioned you in his letters.”

She looks down at her coffee. “Most people would hesitate to hire someone who was convicted of murdering a coworker.”

“I’ve been tempted once or twice,” he says.

His words are so blunt and unexpected that Karen lets out a horrified little laugh.

Billy Russo has the smile of a naughty schoolboy, the kind who knows he’s done wrong but might reform if given the chance. That smile probably serves him very well on the dating scene. But he’s a little too slick for Karen’s tastes. “Let’s just say you wouldn’t be the only person in the office who’s taken a life,” he says. “Comes with the territory when most of my employees are ex-military.”

He thinks she did it, she realizes. Most people will think that, no matter if she’s been exonerated. Even if all of the charges are dropped from her record, if ‘felon’ is struck from her name, it won’t matter. Her supposed crime was in the paper, on the internet, probably the talk of Union Allied’s water cooler. Finding a job could prove more difficult than she anticipated.

“I didn’t kill him,” she says. “But you still might not want an ex-con working for you.”

He shrugs. And she can’t quite tell if he believes her or not. “Benefit of owning my own company. I can hire and fire without anyone else’s approval. Frank obviously trusts you and that’s reference enough for me. I also took a look at your work history. You’d be perfect. If you need a job, just call me.”

It’s a generous offer, but Karen knows she’ll have to think it over later. “Thank you.”

There’s a little more chatter after that—Billy’s good at smoothing over silences. Karen is content to let him do most of the talking, and when their cups are empty, Billy makes his way to the door. It’s when he’s pulling on his jacket that he glances back at Karen. “What did he tell you?” he asks, his voice quiet.

And this, Karen realizes, is what Billy wanted to ask all along. This is why he came here, why he spoke to her. 

“What did Frank tell me about what?” Karen says, startled.

Billy’s hands are still on his jacket, frozen in the act of tugging one sleeve into place. “About that day,” he says, voice still soft.

She knows what he means at once.

There is only one day he could mean.

She still remembers the taste of sweet alcohol across her tongue, the burn of it in her veins, and solid strength of Frank’s shoulder beneath her cheek. She remembers everything that Frank told her that night—but mostly, she remembers the pain in his voice. It was more pain than she’d ever heard from him, more than when he was stabbed, more than when he was bleeding out.

It was my job to protect them. I didn’t.

“Nothing,” she says. Because those are Frank’s confidences, and she will guard them as fiercely as she guards her own secrets. “He never talked about it.”

Billy nods. As if this is what he expected.

“They were a special family,” he says. “They—” But his voice cuts off, and he doesn’t continue. His gaze hardens, and then he strides out of the door, pulling it closed behind him. As if he cannot bear to be in the house a moment longer.

Karen locks the door behind him. She leans against the wood, staring into the hallway.

That night, she doesn’t know where to sleep.

The master bedroom is too personal; the kids’ bedrooms are similarly their own. So Karen goes to a linen closet and pulls out a few clean sheets. She makes up the couch and lays there in the dark.

She thinks of all the things Frank told her about his family. About Lisa and Frank Junior and Maria. It was different hearing the stories, so much more distant than being within these four walls. This place is truly theirs, and Karen still feels like an invader.

She doesn’t sleep well that night. The couch is too soft, and each time she wakes, she has a moment of loss. Like there should be someone beside her.

Rising from the couch around five in the morning, Karen goes to fix herself another cup of coffee. She drinks this one in the hallway, sitting on the stairs. It tastes as good as that first cup, and Karen resists the urge to make another. She sits on the couch, gazing at a house that isn’t hers. 

She doesn’t know what to do. 

But this isn’t the first time she’s had to reinvent herself. If there’s one thing Karen has learned over the years, it’s survival. 

Karen has been many things—waitress, unofficial diner manager, drug dealer, student, secretary. She has learned how to fit into places, how to make herself slip into situations that might not otherwise have fit. There are advantages to being blonde and pretty, and while Karen has spent nearly a year trying to make herself look as unappealing as possible, it’s time to change that.

She uses some of her scant money and goes to a second-hand shop. She spends hours sorting through racks of polyester and cotton, until she has assembled a small assortment of outfits. She’s still too thin, her body angular beneath the blouses. Her face is gaunt when she looks into the fitting room mirrors. She pays for the clothing, then hits up a drugstore. It’s been a long time since she wore make-up, but she finds her old favorite brands and buys those, as well.

She spends an hour in the upstairs bathroom of the Castle residence, using a sharp pair of scissors to smooth out the edges of her hair. She manages to make it look like a bob, at least.

Then she spends the rest of the afternoon cleaning.

She opens all of the windows, airs out the smell of moldy flowers and dust. She vacuums, wipes down every surface, puts the dead flowers in the garbage, brushes dust from the pictures, puts the dishes away, and sweeps the kitchen. By the time evening rolls around, her arms are aching but she feels better. The place looks less like a mausoleum and more like a home.

She eats a dinner of canned soup with a loaf of fresh bread. The bread is so good that she has to force herself to only eat a few slices; she’ll need to save more for breakfast.

She goes back to her bed on the couch, dressed in an oversized t-shirt and panties, and curls up beneath the soft covers. She still has the book that Frank gave her—that copy of Moby Dick that she never intended to read. But she finds herself opening the cover, her fingers sliding across the page.

There are words scribbled in the margins.

Karen inhales sharply, sitting up straight. She touches the indents made by the pen—it feels like a line of connection, a comfort.

Hey. Hopefully you open this book. I know it’s not your favorite.

This was the only way I thought I could—well, the only way the guards might not see this. They’ll shake it to make sure nothing’s hidden inside, but they won’t bother to read it.

Karen turns a page breathlessly.

I was never great at this kind of thing. I wrote letters a lot when I was overseas, but it was mostly replies to things my family’d tell me. Like if Lisa mentioned a test, I’d ask her how it went. I never really had to think of what to say on my own. When I write Bill and Curt in here, it’s mostly to let them know I’m alive.


Her breath catches as she reads her own name. She can almost hear his voice saying it.

—You stay safe, okay? You take care of yourself out there. I know it isn’t going to be easy but if anyone can rise out of this, it’s you. Leave this place behind and live.

There’s the beginning of a word, but it’s crossed out.

She turns another page, but the margins are empty. There’s nothing else.

It’s only when her vision blurs that she realizes tears have clouded her vision. She tries to wipe them again, to put the book aside so it won’t be marred. She wants to hold onto those words.

“God, Frank,” she breathes.

It’s sitting on that couch, surrounded by a home that is not hers, that the sheer injustice of it all hits her.

This family.

They deserved better. Frank deserves better.

Maybe she can give it to him.

When she leaves the house the next morning, Karen keeps her shoulders straight. Her hair is clean and smooth, bouncing a little as she strides toward the bus stop. She wears a pencil skirt and blouse, and if her clothes are a little old, at least they’re clean. Her brows and lashes are darkened and she painted her mouth a light pink. When she glances at herself in the reflection of a car window, she sees someone barely recognizable.

She isn’t the Karen of a year ago, dressed in cute office wear and stepping into the Union Allied offices. But nor is she the Karen of a few days ago, wearing orange and keeping her gaze averted from those bikers. She’s something in between. 

It’s an hour of traversing buses until she reaches Hell’s Kitchen. She has to force herself not to wince at the sound of honking cars and the sheer amount of people everywhere. She will not be daunted, not by this. She takes a tight hold on her purse and walks toward the address in question. It’s an office building—and not a very impressive one, at that. Karen keeps her breaths even as she sees the right door.

Nelson & Murdock.

Chin lifted, she opens the door.

The front area is empty. She has to call it an area in her head because it surely cannot be their reception room. There isn’t even a desk—just a table that looks like someone fished it off of the sidewalk. It’s a wonder that they remembered to remove the “FREE” sign, she thinks, with a small sigh. There are two offices, one on either side, and at least those look furnished. Karen looks back and forth, wondering which to enter, but then someone appears.

Nelson walks out. “Matt, did you hear—” He cuts off abruptly, seeing Karen.

She feels the weight of his gaze as it passes over her. There’s a good few seconds of silence before Nelson says, “Ms… Page?”

There’s enough of a question to his tone that she almost smiles. “Don’t recognize me without the orange jumpsuit?”

Nelson lets out a nervous little laugh. “Sorry. It’s been—it’s been a strange week.”

“Tell me about it,” Karen says. “I was in prison a few day ago.”

Nelson glances around, as if searching for something. “Yes, yes. I was going to call you, actually. To make sure you were settling in. We’re still pursuing—well, we’re pretty sure you’re going to get at least some kind of settlement out of this. It’ll take a few months, but—”

“That’s not why I came here,” says Karen. But before she can continue, there’s a terrible noise from behind Nelson. It sounds like a grinding, an electronic beeping. He whirls, groans aloud, then rushes back into his office.

“Not again,” he says, panicked.

Karen stands there, hand still tucked against her purse, feeling both a little out of place and a little amused. She steps closer and sees that Nelson is standing over a large, industrial printer. Again, it looks secondhand. Nelson is trying and failing to open the paper tray. “I was waiting for that fax—you can’t die on me now—”

Without pausing to think, Karen walks into the office. She reaches over, grabs the paper tray, then angles it upward and yanks it open. There’s a crumpled sheet, and Karen takes ahold of it and gently pries it free. Then she pushes the tray back into place. “Try it now.”

Nelson looks flabbergasted, but he presses a button.

The printer groans, then begins sputtering out paper after paper.

“It’s alive!” Nelson crows. He holds up a hand for a high five.

What the hell, Karen thinks, and gives him that high five.

“That was amazing,” Nelson says. “I’ve never managed to fix a jam that fast.”

“I know this brand,” says Karen. “I worked in an office where I had to learn how to fix them myself because tech would take a week to get to us.”

“Good skill to have,” Nelson says. Now that he’s relaxed a little, he has a nice smile. She finds some of her own tension draining away in his presence. “Now if I could just get the internet to work, we’d be golden.”

She glances at the router.

“Give me five minutes,” she says, and steps forward.

By the time the other lawyer shows up, the internet is indeed working. Mr. Murdock steps into the office, dressed in a suit and carrying his white cane. He has a bruise on one cheekbone, and Karen winces.

“Hey, Foggy,” he says. “Sorry I’m late—ran into a cupboard and…” He tilts his head. “Do we have a client? Or did you use hairspray again?”

“Client,” says Nelson, with a sigh. “Ms. Page is here. To check up on her case. And to fix our printer—and internet.”

“Really?” Murdock lets out a laugh. “Well, that’ll be a nice change.” He holds out his hand and Karen shakes it. “How are you doing, Ms. Page?”

“Fine,” Karen says. She glances around the offices again.

“How are you settling in?” Murdock asks gently. “I know it must be a change for you. Are you staying with a friend? Or—”

“I have a place to stay,” Karen says simply. Her heart is pounding, but she keeps hear voice steady. “And it wasn’t… well, I didn’t just come here to check up on my case.” She takes another breath. “I want a job.”

“You want us to find you a job?” asks Murdock, surprised.

“No,” says Karen. “I want to work here. Because clearly, you need the help—and I do want to help. You did good work on my case and… and I want to do that for others. Not like you guys can, of course. But when it comes to office stuff, I’m the best you’ll find.”

There’s nothing untrue in her words. But what she doesn’t mention is that she has other reasons to want to work here, as well. 

There’s hesitation. Of course there is hesitation—because she’s a client and an ex-con and they’re still stumbling their way into a functional business.

Nelson and Murdock go into one of the offices to converse amongst themselves. Karen looks around the reception area. She’ll find a desk, first. And chairs. And a better coffeemaker.

She kneels beside a box of files. They’re in no order whatsoever. So she begins pulling them out, organizing them by last name.

By the time the decision is made to hire her, Karen is already halfway done.

This is how her days go.

She lives at the Castle residence. She sleeps on the couch and showers in the downstairs bathroom. She eats her meals in the living room, because the kitchen table still feels too intimate. Then she dresses in her secondhand skirts and shirts and rides a bus for an hour. She works with Nelson and Murdock—who swiftly become Foggy and Matt to her.

She likes them.

Foggy is a little awkward but good-natured, and she suspects he’s far more competent than even he realizes. Matt is kind and gentle, a little sharper when pushed. They do end up getting a desk for the reception area—her area. She makes it hers, with fresh flowers and clean sheets of paper and the best coffeemaker the office can afford. Karen works at the front desk, trying to get their office in order. While Foggy and Matt are good lawyers, there’s more to running an office than just lawyering. There are invoices to send, data to be input, files to keep, letters to type up, lunches to be ordered, and phones to be answered. Karen can do all of that and does it well.

At the end of the day, she rides a bus back to the Castle residence. She makes herself dinner, eats it at the couch, and reads Moby Dick.

It’s better this time. Maybe because she isn’t a hungover college student trying to desperately write a paper on the book. This time, she can let the words truly sink in. The story is less about the white whale than she remembered; it is more of sailing, of open seas and the treacherous waters that sailors found themselves drawn to. Of men that could have turned away from danger at any time, but did not. Because the sea was part of their souls.

She understands that.

Because she only lasts two weeks before she goes to her old apartment.

She returns on a stormy night.

She hopes the rain and the wind will hide any trace of a woman dressed in a dark coat, hurrying along a city street. She keeps her head down, face averted from the streetlights.

She knows the way well enough from memory, Her feet find the steps up to her apartment—she goes up by the fire escape, keeping every movement slow and careful. The metal is slick against her fingers as she finds the right window and peers inside.

She hopes the apartment will be empty. She suspects it will be—this isn’t the greatest neighborhood to begin with and real estate becomes very hard to rent once someone’s been violently murdered inside of it. Sure enough, there is no furniture and no sign of any residents. Karen breathes a little easier. She remembers this window, remembers how she never managed to lock it because the lock was broken. She took to wedging a piece of wood in the windowsill, so no one could push it open. But the landlord will have removed that.

She touches the broken lock, wiggles it.

The window pushes free. Karen glances around one last time; thunder rumbles nearby, thrumming deep in her bones.

She slips inside, rainwater dripping to the carpet. It has been torn out in the hallway where—

Where the blood should be.

Karen looks at the spot. She stares at it for a few moments, remembering.

She can all too easily recall that morning. Waking up with blood-slick hands and a knife pressed into her palm.

She steps forward, deeper into the apartment.

This is why she’s doing it. It isn’t revenge—it’s justice. Union Allied may not be her white whale, but they’re close enough. She’s going to take them down.

The apartment darkens as she moves away from any windows. The bathroom is dim and close and she has to rise to her tiptoes to pry open the air vent. She scrabbles around blindly for a few moments, heart beating so hard that she can taste her own fear. It might not be there. It could have fallen, could have been found or—

Her fingers alight on a flash drive. She pulls it free; it’s covered in dust but it’s intact.

It’s hers.

Union Allied never found it.

Triumph rises in her like a fire, like heat, and she embraces it. She waited for so long, managed to survive for this moment. She’s going to bring them down, prove that they were wrong and she was right.

Karen shoves the flash drive deep into her pocket.

She steps into the hallway and sees the open front door.

She never opened that door, never went near it. Which means—

A hand seizes her throat. Frank’s lessons come back to her at once and she grasps the man’s wrist, bending it hard. She goes for his thumb and feels something give—a bone or a tendon. There’s a snarl of pain and then a fist slams into her skull. Her head reels with sudden pain and she releases the man’s wrist. He moves back, out of reach, and the she sees the flicker of metal as he pulls out of a knife.

“Give it to me,” he says.

They know. They know and they had her followed. Or maybe she’s been followed since the moment she was set free—she wouldn’t put it past them.

Frank told her to wait. He told her to let things go until Union Allied would back off but she couldn’t let them. She couldn’t remain still when the need to act burned hot inside of her. And now it might get her killed.

No. No, it won’t. She survived worse than a man with a knife. She braces herself, trying to remember how best to disarm an attacker. She did it once, with Jackson, but she managed to injure her hand. This time, she’ll have to do better. She will do better.

The man lunges at her and Karen darts to one side. She wishes she had something, anything to fight with. She didn’t even bring an umbrella and now she sorely regrets that decision. The knife flashes out at her and she manages to get out of the way.

Lightning flares—catching on the sharp edge of the blade. It isn’t a large knife, but it looks sharp.

“Come on,” she snaps.

The man moves again, stepping into the dim light of a window. He has dark hair and sharp features—younger than she expected. He moves with the grace of a practiced fighter, stepping toward her with the ease of a fencer.

Karen retreats, but as she does so, she pulls off her wet scarf and throws it into the man’s face. He tries to deflect it, and in that moment Karen goes for his arm and the knife. She grabs his arm and slams his hand into the wall, trying to knock the weapon free. His grip is too tight and the blade whispers past her skin.

The man throws her into the wall, his knee hitting her ribs. It drives the breath out of her.

She sprawls against the floor, trying to breathe. Panic beats hard against her ribs and she looks up, sees the man bearing down on her. He is going to kill her. He’s going to shove that knife between her ribs and leave another dead body in this apartment.


Frank will find out, won’t he? Maybe it’ll be in the paper, maybe he’ll read about it.

She wonders if he’ll be angry with her. If he’ll blame her, because her impatience and her stubbornness led her to this moment.

The man reaches into her pocket and pulls out the flash drive. She sees it between his fingers, so small beside the knife. Such a small thing to die for.

But it’s still worth it. The chance for justice, to make things right. She sees it vanish into the assassin’s pocket.

There’s movement behind him and Karen’s gaze flies to the doorway.

Then she sees the other man. 

Everything goes still for a few moments—the man is dressed in dark, close-fitting clothes. And there’s a mask across his eyes and hair. Without hesitation, the man rushes into the apartment and throws himself at Karen’s attacker.

It’s so fast that she barely has time to think, never mind to feel relieved. All she knows is that there are two men in here, two men tangled together as they try to fend one another off.

The first man lashes out with the knife, but the second one throws punch after punch, driving him back. It’s beautiful, in a way. Two silhouettes, graceful and violent, moving against one another. They look equally matched, trading blow after blow. It’s nothing like the way Frank fought: Frank was all brutal efficiency, but this fight has the cadence of a dance.

Karen presses herself up against the wall. If they weren’t between her and the door, she could try and make a run for it. But no, the man from Union Allied still has the flash drive and she cannot let him—

And then they break through a window and fall out of sight. Glass crashes and to the ground far below, the sound drowned by the steady thrum of rain. The scent of the storm fills the empty apartment, damp and metallic. Karen finally manages to sit up. Her ribs are on fire and she’s breathing hard.

This can’t have been for nothing. Waking up bloodied, surviving prison, falling in love with someone she can never have, living out here—it can’t have been for nothing.

She stumbles to her feet, goes to the broken window.

The fight is still going on. Far below, on a rain-soaked street, both men are still going at it. Karen shakes her head, then goes for the fire escape again. She slips out of the apartment, gasping with pain as she has to bend in on herself. She stumbles down the stairs, glancing at the fight every few steps.

When she makes it down onto the street, it’s over.

The masked man has the other one bound with a stray piece of chain. He takes the flash drive from the first man’s pocket after a bit of fumbling, then steps back.

Karen stands there, shivering with adrenaline. That man can’t work for Union Allied; he attacked the man sent to kill Karen. Could he work for a competitor? A rival? 

“Who,” she begins to say, then falters. Because that is so utterly inadequate for what she wants to say. “What the hell?”

The man holds up the flash drive. “I’ll get this into the right hands.” He sounds a little winded himself, but his words are clear.

“No, you can’t.” She steps forward. This man, whoever he is, doesn’t understand. He can’t understand what is on that drive, what it means to her. “You can’t take it to the police. You can’t trust anyone.”

He goes still, but he doesn’t turn back.

“Then we tell everyone,” he says.

Karen doesn’t understand. 

Not until Union Allied makes the front page of the New York Bulletin.

Chapter Text

He sees the news article at breakfast.

It’s been a few weeks since Karen was released; in that time, Frank has filled his days with training Tansy, working his shift in the laundry room, and keeping Lucero out of trouble. Sleeping hasn’t been great; the bed feels too large, and when he wakes, he finds himself glancing around for someone who isn’t there. She won’t ever be here again, and he should be glad of that. He is glad.

She’s going to live her life and that’s the best thing he could ever hope for her. She won’t have to be afraid every moment of every day, won’t have to rely on him for protection. He remember show much she hated that, even if she never said it aloud.

Her new life won’t be easy, he knows. She’ll have the stigma of prison following her like a shadow, but she’s strong and smart. She’ll find a job, probably move out of his house in a few months. He wonders what she thinks of his old place, if she’s comfortable there.

Months ago, he would have balked at the very idea of anyone going into his house. The place felt like some combination of a sacred shrine and a crypt—he isn’t sure he could ever go back again. Even gazing at its exterior that one time hurt so much he’d walked away and never returned. But Karen—Karen is the kind of person who would walk gently through those old memories. There isn’t much for her to find, not really. She knows him well by now, knows the names of his kids and wife, knows of his service and friends. She’ll jut be seeing the details for the first time: his old pictures, the plates he and his family used to eat off of, the piano Maria surprised him with for their five-year anniversary, the kids’ toys, and so many other things he’s terrified to forget.

That house used to shelter everything he held dear—and now, it will again.

But still, he misses her. He misses her grumbles in the morning when her bare feet touched the cold floor, the slant of her hair across her shoulders when she stretched, the teasing way she’d talk to him when she was in a good mood, the conversation and the companionship. He grew used to her presence, to having a partner, having someone he cared about.

But it’s better this way. She is safe and well, and Frank has his own responsibilities.

Tansy spends the some time looking for Karen, as if this were an elaborate game of hide and seek. When Karen doesn’t return, the dog seems a little confused. She whines in the morning, when Karen would typically play with her. “Just you and me, Tans,” he murmurs, rubbing her cheek when she leans against him.

He walks to breakfast with Lucero and the dog. Tansy keeps tugging at her leash, trying to greet everyone they pass. “It’s a good thing you aren’t training her as a guard dog,” says Lucero. “She’d take one look at an attacker and try to make friends.”

Tansy looks up at them both, stubby tail wagging. As if she know they’re talking about her.

They take their usual seats, settling in for a breakfast of oatmeal and something that might have once been canned fruit. It’s too sweet against his tongue and he swallows quickly. Lucero is talking about one of the gangs clashing with the Dogs of Hell, and Frank half-listens while he keeps an eye on their surroundings. It’s how he sees the newspaper that a nearby inmate is reading.

The words of the most prominent headline blur together but he sees them.


He gazes at the Bulletin headline, and for a moment, he considers rising and ripping that newspaper out of its owner’s hands. But he cannot move; his thoughts are racing on ahead of him.

She did it. She did it—she found that flash drive and got it to the press. And now she’s… where? Is she all right? Did they come after her? Will they come after her?

His pulse thunders in his ears, the world going quiet.

He hates that he has no way to get in contact with her. She doesn’t have a cell phone at the moment and his own landline was disconnected. He’ll have to wait the hours needed to use one of the communal phones, pay for a call to Curtis. Or Bill. One of them could probably check in on her, make sure she’s all right.

He’ll do it today. Now.

“Can you take Tansy for a few hours?” He hears himself ask Lucero as if from a distance. Lucero takes the leash and then Frank is striding out of the mess hall. His appetite is utterly gone.

He’s on his way to the phones when a CO steps in front of him. “Castle.”

Frank stops a few inches from the man’s nose. All of the fear and anger churning within him yearns for a release—but he can’t hit a CO. Not if he wants to keep Tansy. The moment Frank gets thrown in solitary again, they’ll take her and give her to someone else. He won’t let that happen.

“Stop wasting our time, Castle,” says the CO.

Frank’s jaw clenches. “What?”

“Visitation,” says the CO, gesturing at the other hallway. “That way. You’re on the schedule. If you miss it, you won’t get another visit for a month. We don’t have time for this.”

That can’t be right. Curtis isn’t supposed to show up until next week and there’s no one else. But Frank just nods. Maybe there was some kind of emergency—what if something has happened and Curt came to tell him in person.

He barely remembers making his way to the visitation guard station, the ensuing search or the humiliation of it. He isn’t thinking of anything else but what might have gone wrong when he steps into the visitation room. It’s familiar, with its panes of bulletproof glass, the old phones, and the COs standing at either end. Frank goes to one of the middle stations and sits. His finger taps against his own thigh impatiently. The door swigs open and Frank looks up, expecting Curt’s familiar form.

Karen walks into the room.

Her hair is cut differently—just as short, but the edges are cleaner. She wears a sleeveless blouse with a flower print and a bracelet circling one wrist. Pale gray is dusted across her eyelids and her mouth is darkened, too. The make-up sharpens her features, makes her even more striking.

She turns a few heads as she walks to the correct seat. She doesn’t seem to notice—her gaze is on him. She sits, only a few feet away, with a layer of bulletproof glass between them. Her eyes roam across him, as if taking in everything all at once. She picks up the phone, and on reflex, he does the same.

“Karen,” he says. Saying her name feels like making this real. The room seems to solidify: the chair beneath him, the desk under one hand, the light catching on her painted nails. She has painted her nails. It’s that little detail that catches his attention. They’re a light gray—not a color he would have expected of her, but he likes it. Those fingers wrap tightly around the phone.

“Hey, Frank,” she says. Her smile is so heartfelt that he finds himself smiling back. “Miss me?”

More than anything. But what he says is, “You did it.”

There’s a satisfied glint to her eyes as she nods. “You saw the paper.”

“Yeah.” He leans forward. “Everything go all right?”

She hesitates and he hears the negative answer in her silence.

“Shit, Karen,” he says, trying to keep his voice low. “If they’re going to try something—”

“They already did,” she says quietly. “They sent someone—when I went after the flash drive. He had a knife, but I don’t think he expected me to know how to fend him off.”

Frank feels a little grim satisfaction at that. “You got away?”

She shakes her head. “Someone else stopped him. I didn’t see who. He was wearing a mask.” She takes a breath, then says, even more softly, “There’s a new vigilante in town. Or at least, there’s rumors of one. I’m not the first person to see him. People are calling him the new Punisher. Or just ‘that masked guy.’”

A deep sense of unease makes Frank shift in his seat. Shit. He should have known there’d be others that came after him. There have always been copycat criminals, and the crimes of the Punisher were controversial even as Frank was committing them. He wasn’t completely unaware; he knew that half of New York saw him as a walking danger, a thing to be put away. And the other half saw him as retribution. As some kind of dark hero.

It was all bullshit. Frank didn’t have any ambitions towards vigilantism or heroism—that wasn’t his aim when he took up a gun and went to war.

“Someone’s out there copycatting me?” he says.

She grimaces; she must hear the disgust in his voice. “I don’t know. There haven’t been… well, to be blunt, there hasn’t been the kind of bodycount you’d expect from someone copycatting you. He’s left criminals tied up, injured them to the point of death, but no one’s actually died yet.” She looks down for a few breaths. “There’s been… a power void in the city. Since three gangs have all but abandoned New York. There are rumors that other criminals are trying to fill that void. The cops are trying to keep up but it’s been difficult. I guess this guy is trying to take up some of the slack.”

Frank makes a derisive sound under his breath. At least he never prettied up his crimes, tried to make them more palatable.

This is one thing he should have anticipated but never did—someone following in his footsteps. That’s probably a little arrogant of him; he’s not the first to pick up a weapon and try to stamp out some of the darkest corners of the world. He’s not even the first in this city.

“Hey,” she says, touching the glass. The movement makes him glance up; her fingers are splayed across the transparent barrier, her face full of worry. For him—because of course she’s worried about him. She faced a knife-wielding attacker, managed to survive and now she’s concerned about Frank’s well being.

He clears his throat. “How’s that thing with the expose working out, then? Union Allied going to face some charges?”

Karen’s jaw clenches. “No. Of course not. The article—it helped. It brought some attention to what happened, but honestly… I think money’s going to smooth it over.” She takes a breath, speaking more quietly. “I got a letter from them a few days ago. They want me to come back into the offices, to talk about my severance package. I think they want to try and buy me off.”

His pulse quickens. The thought of her walking into those offices makes his fingers twitch. Union Allied has tried to kill her too many times, and while she’s out there, he can’t do a fucking thing about it. “Listen, I’m not gonna try to tell you what to do, because I know you don’t give a damn, but—”

“I’m not going,” she says, breaking into his words. “I won’t. I mean, I don’t think they’d try anything in a conference room but it’s more than that. I don’t want their money.”

He breathes a little easier. “Okay.”

She looks at him through the glass. “And I do care what you think, Frank.”

They’re both quiet for a few moments, but it isn’t awkward. They’ve spent too much time together for silence to be uncomfortable.

“So how’s Tansy?” she asks. “It feels like forever since I’ve seen her.”

This is easier territory to tread and Frank finds himself relaxing. “She keeps trying to climb into the bed, now that there’s room.”

Karen laughs, ducking her head. “Oh, no.”

“She still isn’t allowed,” he says. “But I’ve been making up her blanket just the way she likes it before bed, so she’ll be less tempted to try.”

“She just wants attention, probably.”

He snorts. “Between Lucero and nearly every inmate we walk by, there’s no shortage. She’s still charming most of the old lifers. One of them even stopped watching football yesterday to shake her paw.”

It feels so natural to fall into his conversation, as if they never spent any time apart.

“How’s the house?” he asks. It hurts a little to ask, but he needs to hear the answer.

“Dusty,” Karen admits. “There were… a lot of dead flower arrangements. I threw those out. Also a desiccated cactus on the kitchen windowsill. I’ve been cleaning a little. There was some old food.”

“Which bedroom are you staying in?”

She looks down at her hands and he just knows.

“You’re sleeping on the couch, aren’t you?” he asks.

She looks up sharply, surprise written across her face. “I—yes. I wasn’t sure where I should be sleeping.”

He considers it for a few moments. She won’t take the master bedroom so he won’t suggest it. And he gets it—there’s something uncomfortably intimate in the thought of her taking the bed that he shared with Maria. Frankie’s room will be a mess. Which leaves…

“Lisa’s,” he finally says. “Take Lisa’s room.”

Apprehension flickers across her expression. “Frank, I—”

“Frankie’s room will be a disaster zone,” he says. “Trust me, you’re going to find some very questionable food growing mold under the bed. Take Lisa’s. Her bed will be a little narrow, but it’s still more comfortable than the couch.”

And—and he knows that Lisa would have loved Karen. They would have been thick as thieves if they’d ever met. If the universe was a different place, if Karen had stayed with Lieutenant Frank Castle and his family, Lisa probably would have insisted Karen take her room so Lisa could sleep on the couch.

“Okay,” Karen says. “If you’re sure.”

“I am.”

Karen still looks as though she wants to protest, but she glances up at the clock. Their time is ticking down.

“I brought some things,” she says. “The COs will have to search them, I know, but hopefully some will make it through inspection in a few days.”

Guards will take gifts sometimes; they both know that. And she can’t have much money. “You didn’t need to,” Frank says.

“It isn’t anything too exciting,” she says. “Just a few small gifts from the outside world.” She smiles at him, and the sight is achingly beautiful. Freedom looks good on her. “I’ve found a job.”


“My lawyers,” she says. She laughs, touches a finger to her lower lip. “They’re—they’re still so new at this. Running their own business, I mean. I went in to talk to them and their internet was down, the fax machine was trying to revolt and Foggy—Nelson, I mean—looked ready to throw himself out a window. They need an office manager, so I’m in.”

“You ready to go back to work?” he asks. It has to be an adjustment, going from prison back into the rest of the world. He would understand if she needed some time.

“Honestly, I think going back to work is the best thing for me,” she says. A vein of weariness enters her voice. “I can’t just… I need something to do or else…”

“Yeah, I get that.” He shifts a little in the uncomfortable plastic chair. She has never been the type of person to enjoy idleness. “Just don’t push yourself. You’ve got time to settle back in.”

One of the COs ambles up to Karen. He’s one of the bigger guys, white with a goatee and shaved head. He’s looks every inch the stereotypical prison guard, which is probably why the administration puts him out here where he’s visible. “Two minutes,” the CO says. There’s a bit of a leer in voice as he speaks to Karen; he probably doesn’t recognize her, not dressed like she is. Karen averts her gaze to the table.

“Yes, I know.”

The CO moves on, to tell another visitor about the time limit. As he walks behind Karen, her whole body tenses up. It’s like she’s expecting him to grab her, and when he’s gone, she still doesn’t relax.

Frank edges closer to the glass. “Karen,” he says, and she looks at him.

She shouldn’t be here. She just got out of prison; she’s probably still shaking off the memories of this place. Those wounds are still so goddamn fresh—Hodges’ death, Jackson’s attack, all of the whispers in the dark. She shouldn’t have to relive any of that, particularly not for his sake. She should leave this place—and him—behind and reclaim some amount of normalcy.

“Karen,” he says again, when she doesn’t reply.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” she says softly into the phone. “It’s just weird. Being back here… but not.”

“I know.” He takes a breath. “You don’t need to—Karen, don’t feel like you have to—”

“It’s fine.” She forces a smile. “You tell Lucero hi from me. And Tansy.”

“I will.”

“You take care, Frank,” she says. She smiles at him one last time, and this time, it’s more natural. It’s tired and worried but brave—and it’s all her. It’s Karen. He touches a hand to the glass and she does the same. It’s tantalizing, to see her so close and not be able to feel her.

“Bye, Karen,” he says. And he watches as she rises from her chair and leaves the visitation room. The last of her that he sees is that flash of short blonde hair.

He rises from the table, feeling both uneasy and reassured. He’s glad that Karen looks well, that she’s found a job with ease and seems to be fine living at his house. The news of this new vigilante is worrying, but there’s nothing he can do about it.

Her gifts arrive a few days later. It takes that long for them to be searched and delivered, and Frank is returning from an hour in the yard when he sees the box in his cell. He sets it on the small cot, pulling open the lid.

There’s a bag of instant coffee. It’s been opened, of course. The COs would’ve had to check to make sure nothing was smuggled inside of it. But the brand is far better than anything carried by the commissary. There’s a bag of dog treats and a small, frog-shaped chew toy. It squeaks when Frank picks it up and he smiles, imagining Karen standing amidst the racks of a pet supply store, trying to find something for Tansy. There’s a ball of yarn—presumably for Lucero. And lastly, a book. It’s a paperback novel, one he doesn’t recognize. Some kind of thriller by the look of it. He flips it open to the title page and sees the a stain of ink. Blinking, he turns the page.

There, just beneath the copyright paragraph, are handwritten words.

Hey, Frank. Thanks for the book—I’ve been reading it. It’s better than I remembered. And thank you for—

There’s something scribbled out. Then the words continue on.

—Everything. My new cell number is below. Use it. Give Tansy a kiss from me, okay? And take care.

That last word is underlined. Twice.

I’ll come back to visit in a couple of weeks. Call me if you want anything in particular from the outside world.

There’s another mark upon the page, as if Karen set her pen to it—but then didn’t continue writing.

Frank’s thumb runs across the blot of ink.

The thriller is one he hasn’t read and he spends the rest of the afternoon with Tansy sprawled across his legs as he reads with his back to the wall, lost in the pages. It’s the best afternoon he’s had in a while.

She keeps her word and returns in two weeks. This time she wears a dark dress that makes his mouth go a little dry. It’s short-sleeved, fitted, and hits her below the knee. It looks like the kind of dress worn in an office—like she should be carrying a clipboard or wearing a headset. Her short hair is pinned back, showing off the length of her neck and sleek shoulders. More than one inmate turns to stare at her as she walks to the right seat and takes her place by the phone. “Hey,” she says.

“Hey,” he replies. Then, because his mouth moves without any input from his brain, he adds, “Nice dress.”

She laughs, rueful color in her cheeks. “Thanks. I got my first paycheck and indulged in another trip to the secondhand store. Found a few things. If I help the guys in court, I’ll need something that fits.”

It fits, all right. Fits her like it was made for her.

“How’s work?” he asks.

She smiles. “It’s good. Foggy and Matt just got their first real case—well, besides mine. We won, of course. They’re good lawyers. Terrible at getting the fax machine to work, though.”

Frank nods, listening as she tells him a few stories about her new job. She’s been taking the bus to Hell’s Kitchen, and he knows that’s quite the commute. But she doesn’t seem bothered by it. “I’ve been airing out the house a little,” she says. “Cleaning things up. There’s a lot of dust and—and I was wondering if there was anything you wanted me to do.”

He opens his mouth to say ‘nothing’ but then he considers. Karen’s the type of person who hates having to rely on anyone—he knows that. It’s probably been a blow to her pride that she needed a place to stay after she left prison. Helping take care of the house isn’t rent but it’s something for her to do. A way to repay him.

He doesn’t care about rent or repayment, but it matters to her.

“There’s a lot of clothing,” he says. “Some’s probably just moth food at this point. It’ll need to be washed and sorted through. Some could probably be donated.”

Karen nods, her expression sharp with attention. “I can do that. Anything I shouldn’t throw out?”

He shakes his head. “Nothing to hold onto. If you want anything, consider it yours. Maria hated throwing out things. She’d be glad they were going to someone. Just be careful opening the closets or you’ll end up buried under an avalanche of old coats.” He remembers how their closet used to be overfull, how Maria used to say she might wear something again, even if they both knew she probably never would. It’s an old memory, one that almost makes him smile.

It’s strange to remember without feeling that sharp slice of pain. Maybe this is what Curt means when he talks about moving on. Frank has never wanted to move on, because it felt like a betrayal—a forgetting. But he hasn’t forgotten. He won’t ever forget; he won’t let himself. The fear that those memories might fade is still one that wakes him up at night. But somehow talking about them with Curt or Karen doesn’t hurt. There’s a warmth to the old memories.

“How’s Lucero?” asks Karen.

“He liked your yarn.” Frank cups his hands. “He tried to make a new kind of hat. It came out looking like a balaclava.”

“Oh no.” She laughs, fingers against her mouth.

“Tansy enjoyed the cookies,” Frank continues.

“I wish you could bring her in with you,” Karen admits. “I’d love to see her, even if I can’t touch her.”

“I’ll ask,” Frank says, but he has little hope. Maybe he can phrase it so it sounds like visitation is an experience a service dog should have.

“Any trouble with the bikers?” asks Karen.

He shakes his head. “After that scene in the mess, they haven’t tried anything with me. You might have scared them off.”

Karen snorts. “Well, since I’m not around to be terrifying anymore, hopefully they’ll find someone else to pick a fight with.”

He wonders if she will talk about Union Allied, but she doesn’t bring them up—and he follows her lead. When their time is over, Karen touches the glass. “I brought another box,” she says. “And remember, if you want anything—I mean, anything that’ll make it through security—just call me.”

“Karen, you don’t have to—”

“I know,” she says. “I want to.”

He nods. “Okay.”

She rises, gives him one last farewell, and leaves the room before the COs can bark at her for taking too much time. Again, a few of the inmates and two of the visitors eye her as she walks by. Karen pays them no attention, her purse tucked under her arm and her gaze straight ahead. Frank watches her until she’s gone.

The inmate sitting beside Frank leans back, so that he can speak around the barrier. “Hey,” he says. “My wife wants to know where your wife got that dress.”

Frank stands, glancing across the glass. Sure enough, there’s a woman sitting across from the other inmate. Typically, Frank doesn’t talk to anyone other than Lucero—but this man seems harmless enough.

“No idea,” Frank says, with a shrug.

It’s only when Frank is halfway to the door he realizes that he never corrected the other inmate.

Karen’s second package arrives a week after she does, just before curfew. He’s in bed, Tansy asleep on the floor, when he pulls it open.

This time, the gifts are a packet of candy—torn open and half of it gone, thanks to the COs—along with more dog treats and another book. It’s some kind of romantic comedy, by the looks of the cover. Frank flips it open and his heart sinks. The first five pages have been torn out.

It could be the guards being assholes, or they might have discovered that Karen wrote into book. Maybe they think her notes were some kind of code. Or maybe they just liked the idea of Frank never finding out what the first five pages contain.

He wonders if Karen did write in this book—and if she did, what she said.

The lights flicker out with an audible buzz, and the cell doors click shut. Frank ignores the sound of the CO walking up and down the hallway, checking to make sure everyone is secure. Frank lays on his back gazing up at the ceiling.

The memory of her last visit comes back to him: Karen in that dark dress, leaning across the table toward him. It’s not like he’s ever cared about fashion, but seeing Karen take control of her own appearance is damned sexy. There’s a confidence she never had while in prison. He remembers the glint of her painted nails, the slight darkening of her lashes and mouth. And—all right, he’ll admit it to himself. Her breasts looked amazing in that dress. The neckline had been high enough for work, but she must have been wearing a better bra than the kind they gave her in here.

He remembers the lines of her body, pressed to his in this very bed. And when they showered together—the water sluicing down over her bare form. He always tried to keep things a little distant when they were showering, but he still recalls that time with the bikers. She was scant inches away, so close he could see the droplets of water collecting on her eyelashes.

He’s spent so long trying not to think about her in a sexual light. It wasn’t right when she was here, when she needed him. It felt like a shitty thing to do, to be attracted to someone who couldn’t say no without risking her own safety.

But now she is safe. She doesn’t depend on him anymore.

The erection he’s been trying to ignore presses at the seam of his pants. Because he is hard—the memories of Karen in that tight dress and in the shower are more than enough to send most of the blood in his body southward.

He presses the heel of his hand against his hard cock, and the touch sends a jolt of pleasure through him.

She’s safe—and maybe he can indulge, just a little.

His fingers curl around his cock. He strokes once, experimentally. He can’t remember the last time he jerked off; he forgot how damned good it can be. It’s dark enough that no one can see him and the COs won’t be around for another hour.

He concocts a nice fantasy in which there is a shower and no prison at all—just him and Karen. He would kiss the drops of water from her neck before sliding downward, his hands across her hips as he spreads her wide. She flushes pink when she is angry or embarrassed, and he wonders if she would do the same if he went down on her. He’s always enjoyed that—feeling a woman come apart beneath his mouth, her fingers twisting against his hair. She doesn’t seem like the kind of person who’d be very loud; she’d probably have to be coaxed into the softest of whimpers and gasps.

He wonders how Karen would want him—if he would take her up against the wall or maybe she’d ride him to the floor. She has a bossy streak on occasion and sex might bring it out in her. Part of him hopes it would, because the thought of Karen, smiling and confident, pressing him down to the floor—it almost makes him come right there. He squeezes the base of his cock. He imagines how she would look astride him, her hands against his chest and kiss-swollen lips parted in a gasp. Sinking into her would be far more satisfying than the tight, dry grip of his own hand. It wouldn’t even be the physicality of it all—he hasn’t been that near to a person in years. Hasn’t had that kind of intimacy, that bone-deep knowledge that someone trusts and wants him enough to welcome him into her body. In his fantasy, Karen whimpers as she orgasms, her body taut and nails digging into his skin. That’s the thought that tips him over the edge.

He comes hard, spilling across his fingers. He takes a few moments to make sure his breathing is even, that he remained quiet through it all. There’s no sound, no evidence that anyone noticed. Even Tansy is still asleep across the cell, curled up in her own bed. Frank reaches for a dry wash cloth to clean himself up.

A pang of guilt dampens the last of his arousal. Not for the jerking off—but for doing so to the thought of Karen. He shouldn’t have done it; she’s his friend, one of his closest friends, and she deserves better. He won’t do it again, he decides.

His resolve lasts until her next visit, when she’s dressed in a tight pencil skirt and floral-print blouse.

The bikers try to kill him two months after Karen gets out of prison.

In hindsight, he’s surprised it takes so long. It’s when he’s on shift in the laundry room, his fingers checking the knot on a mesh bag and attention focused on the task. He doesn’t hear them coming; the sound of the washers is deafening when they’re on that final spin. The thump-thud of wet laundry bag slamming into the walls of the machine drowns out all other sounds. Tansy is with Lucero—and he’s grateful for that when a braided length of rope comes down around his neck and yanks taut.

It’s not the first time he’s been strangled. Which is how he reacts fast enough to save himself.

He slams his head backward as soon as he feels the noose tighten around his throat. The back of his skull cracks into someone’s nose and it breaks, wetness spattering down Frank’s neck. There’s a shout loud enough to be heard, even above the clamor of the washing machines. Frank gets two fingers between the rope and his throat and yanks hard, getting enough space to breathe. He kicks out, his foot hitting a knee and then his attacker releases him. Frank whirls around, putting one of the washers to his back.

The man who tried to strangle Frank is on the floor, his lower face a mask of blood. He’s got a goatee and the familiar tattoos of the Dogs of Hell.

And behind him are three more bikers.

One holds a sharpened length of wood; another has what looks like a pen with a razor shoved through it.

It’s just him and the men who would kill him. It’s a clean fight, and he almost welcomes the break in the monotony.

The fact that these men are from one of the gangs at the carousel shooting just makes it all the easier to fight back.

“Come on,” Frank snarls. There’s no fear in him, none at all.

Karen visits him a week afterward, which is both a blessing and not. Her face darkens with concern the moment she sees him.

“You look terrible,” she says.

Frank has one black eye and his nose has been broken again—which is more of an annoyance than his other minor injuries. He’s had to sleep with two pillows and a towel wedged up beneath his head so he can breathe at night. The swelling will go down in a few days or so, but until then it’s like having an irritating head cold.

“You’ve seen me look worse,” he replies.

“Yeah, when you had a knife sticking out of your chest.” She holds the phone with both hands, leaning close to the glass barrier. Some of her hair slips free of where she tucked it behind her ear. “You need me to come back and rough some people up for you?”

He laughs. And it feels good, even if it makes his face twinge with discomfort.

“Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, you do that.”

She smiles back at him. It’s tinged with a little sadness. “How many?”

“Four,” he says. “Dogs of Hell.”

“You get more time?”

He shakes his head. “No one saw it. Can’t prove anything.”

She exhales against the phone. Today, she’s dressed in a sweater and skirt. It looks like it might be raining outside; her hair is a little damp and the collar of her shirt looks dark with moisture.

“How’s Tansy?” she asks, and he tells her.

In return, he learns about her life. She has begun mentioning a new friend at their talks. A man called Ben who works at the Bulletin. Frank doesn’t know the man, but he’s read some of his articles; they’re well-written, thoughtful.

She grows closer to those lawyers of hers. Friends now, more than just colleagues.

Frank is glad for that. She should have friends, a job, and a life. 

Three months after she gets out of prison, Karen gets her own apartment. She reassures Frank that she’ll keep an eye on his own home, visit every few weeks to make sure that a pipe hasn’t burst or anything. She’s obviously relieved to have her own apartment again, and he can understand that; but still, he wishes he could do more to help.

It’s a few weeks after she gets her apartment that she whispers a name into the phone. She cups her hand around the mouthpiece, her voice so soft he barely hears it.

Wilson Fisk.

The man behind Union Allied. The man in the shadows.

There’s another name, as well. That masked man who literally works in the shadows. That new vigilante. The press is calling him the second Punisher—something that makes Frank scoff. “You set a precedent, man,” says Lucero, poking at the newspaper.

“I’m not a precedent,” says Frank. “And I never wore a mask.”

As far as Frank can tell from Karen’s one encounter with the man and the newspaper stories, this vigilante seems to be operating differently than Frank. There’s no telltale pile of bodies, no shell-casings left to smoke on the pavement. This man uses fists and batons and leaves his targets tied up on stairways with evidence pinned to their chests.

He sounds like an overdramatic asshole, if anyone were to ask Frank.

No one does, though.

Another month passes, and the chaos in the city intensifies. Frank watches it through newspapers and letters, hears about strange explosions and shoot-outs. He chafes at his restraints, has to remind himself to not pick fights because it won’t help. He tries to put more energy into working out in the yard, into training Tansy, into teaching Lucero how to fight. They’ve started lessons in the laundry room when they’re both free.

When Karen comes to visit, she looks on edge. Her fingers skitter across the table like nervous insects and she keeps glancing around. As if expecting to be watched.

She tells him in hints and few words that she and Ben Urich have been digging into Wilson Fisk. That she refuses to let this go.

Frank should have known as much. 

There are more bodies on the ground. It isn’t just her old coworker—there’s an old woman.

Fisk is trying to take control of the city, and it seems the only people trying to stop him are two lawyers, a reporter, and an ex-con.

Rage burns at the back of Karen’s eyes, cold and icy. In those moments, Frank can see some of himself in her—that furious energy that drives her. He recognizes it and part of him yearns for it because he hasn’t had that kind of mission in so long. He misses it—misses the action and the sense of purpose. In here, there are no wars to be won. There’s only survival, and that’s a grinding, exhausting sort of fight.

“We’re going to bring him down,” she says, utter conviction in her voice.

She burns so damned bright. If he weren’t already gone on her, he probably would’ve fallen just by looking at her now.

Then she misses her usual visitation day.

He doesn’t even realize how much he’s been depending on her visits until the day comes and she doesn’t. Her name is on the schedule, but she never shows—and Frank goes to the phones. He uses them on only rare occasions—once or twice to call Curtis, and a few times he did take Karen up on her request to bring certain items when Lucero caught a bad cold and needed supplies. Now, Frank glares at the line of inmates and takes the nearest phone without waiting. He has Karen’s number memorized, and he listens to her cell ring and ring until it goes to voicemail.

“Hey,” he says. “I just—just checking in. You didn’t show and—and if something came up, that’s fine. Wanted to make sure you’re okay.” He doesn’t bother hiding the concern in his voice; Karen will hear it regardless of how he tries. He hangs up, stomach aching and hollow.

She’s fine. She probably just had a flat tire or—

No, she still doesn’t have a car.

Maybe the bus broke down. Maybe there was a traffic jam.

He waits for a reply, for anything.

It comes two days later.

Karen herself arrives at the prison—unscheduled, barely announced. One of the COs barks at Frank as he’s leaving the yard, and Frank finds himself being searched while he’s sweaty and probably more than a little ripe. Luckily, that makes the search go faster. Once he’s dressed and through security, Frank finds himself sitting at the farthest phone when she arrives.

His heartbeat stutters at the sight of her.

She looks bad.

No—she doesn’t. She is as beautiful as ever, but something’s utterly wrong. She’s dressed in a sweatshirt—one of his. It’s an old hoodie, one he left at the house. On any other day, the sight of her in his clothing might have made him sit up for far different reasons, but now all he can think is how small she looks in that garment. Her face is bare of make-up and her hair has been pulled into a hasty ponytail. But none of that matters, not when he sees her eyes.

There’s an emptiness to her expression. A carved-out quality that reminds him of when he looked in the mirror every day for all those weeks he hunted the gangs.

He presses the phone tightly to his ear and says, “Karen?”

She doesn’t answer. 

He touches the plastic where her hand rests along the table. As if he might reach through and grasp her fingers. She looks up at him. And he can see the tears brimming. “What happened?” he asks.

She blinks. One of the tears falls.

“Did you get away clean?” he says softly, and her face crumples in on itself. He leans forward, pressing his palm to the plastic barrier so hard his fingers go pale.

She digs her knuckles into her own mouth, trying to stifle a sob. “God,” she whispers. “You can tell. Fuck—you can see it on me, can’t you?”

“Only because I know you,” he says, still quiet. “What happened?”

“Fisk.” The word is merely a breath; the guards aren’t far away. She has to whisper. “One of his people. I… I got away.”

That bastard. That utter bastard. Fury roars up in his chest but he has to swallow it. She doesn’t need his anger right now; she needs to know she isn’t a monster. Because she isn’t.

“Look at me,” he says. “Karen, look.”

She looks. There are more tears on her face; she looks as if she wants to collapse but hasn’t yet had the time.

“You did good,” he says, fierce now. “You got that? You did the right thing.”

“Did I?” More tears fall across her cheeks.

“You’re alive,” he says. “You’re sitting here, talking to me. You did what you had to.”

“I was so angry,” she whispers. “It was his—his second in command. Wesley. He took me, threatened everyone. My friend at the Bulletin, my lawyers, even you. Said—said I’d be the last one they killed. And I just—I couldn’t—”

He wishes she didn’t know what that felt like, but nor will he condemn her for it. He can’t.

“Yeah, I get that,” he says. “Will he trace it to you?” Because he needs to know. He has to know if they’re coming after her.

She shakes her head. “I don’t think so. I don’t think he… he ordered it directly. One of his people did it. As for the… as for what I used. I—I threw it into the river. Then I ran. I went—I went back to your house. Because it has a security system, and my place doesn’t. I’m sorry, I know I probably shouldn’t have—”

“No,” he says. “No, that’s fine.”

“I borrowed some clothes.” She tugs at the hem of the hoodie’s sleeve. It’s too long for her, and she has rolled up the edges around her thin wrists. “Mine were—I couldn’t—”

“Karen,” he says, and she looks at him. “I don’t give a fuck about the clothes or my house.” He has to keep his voice low. “They hurt you?”

She shakes her head. “They—they drugged me. Again. I feel—god, I feel so hungover.”

“Get some water into you,” he says. “When you leave, there’s a vending machine in the hallway. I’ve heard Lucero talk about it when his family visited. Get something to drink—not coffee.”

She gives him a watery smile. “That’s how I know this is fucked up. Frank Castle telling me not to drink coffee.” She lets out another little sob and tries to choke it back. “I miss this sometimes.” She wipes at her cheeks. “I mean, I don’t miss this place or the food or anything—but I miss you.”

The confession hurts him, because he gets it.

There’s a certain camaraderie that comes of being brothers in arms. It’s a combination of living and working together—and of shared experience. No matter how much others who haven’t served try to sympathize, they don’t get it. Only other soldiers really understand. And while this prison isn’t the same as a battlefield, there are certain similarities. He and Karen fought side by side, shared the same food, the same lifestyle, hell, they were living together. He still looks for her sometimes in his cell, a glance over his shoulder before he remembers that she isn’t there. He should have known that despite her being on the outside, it wouldn’t be all sunshine and roses for her. She’s probably been fighting to reclaim some semblance of her old life, but she’s surrounded by people who don’t understand. She could stand in a crowd and feel utterly isolated.

He hates the barrier so much right now. He wants to reach out, to pull her close.

“You be careful, all right?” he says quietly. “If this shit with Fisk is heating up, you should consider getting out of town. If you need money, talk to Curtis. He’s got access to all of my accounts.”

“I’m not taking your money, Frank,” she says.

“It’s not like I’m using it. And—Karen.” A bit of emotion slips into his voice, and he can’t hold it back. “I can’t—I can’t keep you safe. Not while I’m stuck in this place. If you need to run, you run. Don’t—” His voice breaks on the last word.

Don’t die for this.

Looking at her, he is reminded of how fragile the human body is—how easily a life can be taken.

He can’t lose her. It’s why he got Curtis to hire those lawyers in the first place, why he was so relieved to have her free. He’s lost too much already and the thought of a world without Karen Page makes him want to rend this place apart with his bare hands.

“Stay at my place, at least,” he says. “Stay until it all blows over. Use that security system. And if you see anyone following you, if you’ve got a tail or even if you get a bad feeling, I want you to go to Anvil.”

She looks at him in surprise. “Anvil?”

“Bill’s company,” he says. “I know you haven’t met him.”

Bill could get someone to keep an eye on Karen. But at the thought of their meeting, Frank’s stomach clenches. It isn’t jealousy—well, not entirely. Karen is just the kind of woman that Bill would happily take to bed: smart, gorgeous, able to keep up with his quips. But for Bill, she’d be a one night stand. Maybe a few nights. But—fuck, maybe it is jealousy simmering at the back of his stomach.

“I know what Anvil is,” Karen says. “Billy Russo came by, right after I got out of prison. He was the one who told me about the security system, gave me the code for it. Sorry, I forgot to mention that.”

“Oh,” he says, surprised. Bill never mentioned that in his letters.

“Yeah, he offered me a job,” she says. “He seemed nice. Friendly.” She shrugs. And that shrug tells Frank everything he wants to know but dared not ask. She isn’t interested in Bill, not in the least. It’s how she shrugged when Lucero asked if she was a fan of meatloaf.

And then he feels like an utter asshole because this is not the time. He can sort out his tangled emotions later—right now, there are other priorities.

“Still,” he replies. “If you’re in danger, go to Bill. He’d keep you safe.”

She lets out a breath. “I can’t—every time I close my eyes, I see that moment. I just…” She doesn’t seem to know how to continue.

“Hey.” He leans forward. “Hey.” He keeps his voice soft and presses a hand to the glass between them. “I’m not gonna pardon you, because you don’t need it. Far as I’m concerned, all you did was take the trash out. That asshole—you remember what he did. And what he wanted to do. You stopped that, you know? You stopped that.”

She brushes the glass. Her fingers against his but never touching.

She doesn’t speak, so he just listens to the uneven hitch of her breathing. They sit there, in that silence, until the hour is up and Karen is escorted away.

Frank returns to his cell—their cell, it’ll always be their cell now—and sits on his bed.

Wilson Fisk’s people had her kidnapped.

She was fucking kidnapped and she killed someone to save herself.

His hands clench hard. He’s utterly useless in here and he hates it. The fury he’s been holding back threatens to rise up and choke him; he has to force himself to stay still, to feel the anger without letting it consume him.

She isn’t safe out there. He could lie to himself before, thinking she was. But this is proof of it.

Sometimes he wishes he were a devout man, because he could pray. He could trust in some kind of plan. But faith is one thing he lacks.

He believes in her, though.

And so he tries to trust in that.

Ben Urich is murdered a few days later.

It makes the papers. There’s no mention of another victim, so Karen has to be alive.

She has to be.

Frank strides to the line of phones, again ignoring the line. He gives one man such a dark look that he drops the phone and steps away, leaving the receiver dangling on its cord. Frank picks it up and uses some of his account money to dial out.

The phone rings once, twice, and then Karen picks up. She’ll know who it is—the prison has a recorded message with every outgoing call.

“Frank,” she says.

She’s alive. He sags against the wall, breathing hard. “Karen.”

He waits for her to say something more, but there’s just a shuddering hiccup. She’s crying.

“Hey, hey,” he says. “Shh. It’s okay. It’s gonna be okay.”

“It was my fault,” she whispers.

There’s no way to reassure her, not now. Not with the news so fresh. And she can’t even get into specifics because they both know the call is being recorded.

“Shh,” he says again. “It’s okay.” He’s at a loss for what else he can do. “Shh.”

He listens to her try to catch her breath. Every minute that ticks down is more money spent, but he doesn’t care. Fuck buying coffee at the commissary—this matters more.

“I have to go to the funeral,” she says. “I have to—his wife will be there. I have to tell her.”

A funeral. It’ll be out in the open, a perfect place to target her.

He won’t be able to talk her out of it. He knows that, too. But he can’t just let her go out there, not like this.

“You still staying at my place?” he says quietly.

“Yeah.” There’s another shaky breath.

“Good.” He rubs a hand across his mouth. “You there right now?”

There’s a hesitation before she replies. “Yes.”

“Go into the upstairs bedroom. The master.” His and Maria’s room. 

He can hear rustling, the sound of the phone as she presses it between her ear and shoulder. She is probably walking across the living room, up the stairs. Then she says, “I’m here.”

“Behind the print on the east-facing wall,” he says. “Check there.”

More rustling, then a sharp inhalation. He can almost picture it—Karen pushing aside the picture and seeing the wall safe behind it.

He rattles off the numbers by memory and again, he can picture Karen typing them into the keypad. There’s a soft beep, and then Karen draws in an audible breath.

There are only two things in that safe: an unloaded pistol and a box of ammo. Kept away from the kids, out of sight—just in case. Only Maria ever knew about it.

“Frank,” she whispers.

“Take it,” he says. “Keep it on you at all times.”

There’s a long silence. He thinks she might disagree; the memory of killing a man is still probably too fresh. But then she says, so softly he almost doesn’t here, “Okay.”

He wants to tell her; he almost says it.

I love you.

But she carries enough burdens; she doesn’t need to be weighed down by his, as well.

“Frank,” she says. It sounds like the start of something, then she says, “Thank you,” and hangs up.

Chapter Text

The first night after Fisk is arrested, Karen doesn’t go back to her apartment.

She has been staying at Frank’s home again. She tells herself it’s because there’s a security system, because this place has no paper trail that could lead Fisk’s people here, that it’s a good neighborhood and the water pressure is better. But the truth of the matter is that the only time she’s truly felt safe was with Frank. And even if he isn’t nearby, his house is the closest she can come to recapturing that sense of security.

So she sleeps in the smaller upstairs bedroom. She has cleaned out some of Lisa’s things—toys, mostly. They’ve been donated or packed away. The book she found beside the bed, she has kept. It’s a little Golden Book, well-worn and obviously well-loved. It didn’t feel right to pack it away.

And for the first time in weeks, she sleeps the whole night.

When she wakes, it’s to a world where Fisk is behind bars. But the world is forever changed. Ben is still gone, and so are Fisk’s numerous victims. Karen’s own hands are stained with Wesley’s blood. And now that masked vigilante, has a name thanks to the papers: Daredevil. It sounds a little ridiculous, but at least now she doesn’t have to think of the other guy as Punisher-lite any more.

Karen showers in the upstairs bathroom, gazes at herself in the fogged up mirror when she’s finished, and sees a woman she recognizes from months ago. The last few weeks have burned away some of the weight she managed to regain after leaving prison and the hollows beneath her eyes are too dark. She doesn’t have any make-up on her, besides a bit of lipstick shoved in her purse. She came here after Wesley and never really left, but she didn’t come with supplies.

She’s been wearing a few of the clothes she didn’t donate—mostly a few of Frank’s shirts, because none of the kids’ stuff would fit and Maria’s dresses aren’t what Karen needs right now. She pulls on a soft flannel shirt; there’s paint staining one of the sleeves, and it matches the color of the cheery yellow downstairs. Karen brushes her thumb over the paint, imagining Frank working on the house. She has to roll up that sleeve, as his arms are longer than hers. She glances in the mirror a second time. She looks a little like she did years ago, working at the diner and wearing whatever was clean. But this woman looks older and far more hard-edged.

Karen smears the fog with the palm of her hand, brushing the mirror clean, before she goes downstairs to make a cup of coffee.

It isn’t her usual visitation day, but she calls the office to tell them that she’s taking the day off. Foggy and Matt will probably be irritated; Fisk being arrested is their dream come true and there will be paperwork and case details to file, but Karen can’t quite bring herself to care. She knows that Frank will have seen the papers by now.

She takes the bus to the prison; it’s almost habit by now. The CO at the front desk is a new guy—young and fresh-faced, and he scrambles with the paperwork when Karen gives him her name and tells him she’s on Frank Castle’s approved visitors list. He blanches; he obviously recognizes Frank’s name. The look he gives Karen is one of incredulity and a bit of disgust. Maybe he thinks she’s a Punisher groupie or maybe a relative. She doesn’t care.

She’s searched and then sent into the long, narrow room. Frank arrives about five minutes afterward, his dark hair damp and clothing a little askew. He must have just showered.

His gaze flows over her, then his shoulders relax. As if he’s reassured himself that she’s fine.

“Hey,” she says, taking the phone.

“Hey,” he says in answer. “You got him, then?”

“Well, someone did,” Karen says. “Your successor, looks like. Left him for the cops and the justice system.”

The corner of his mouth curls in irritation. “If it had been me, he wouldn’t be facing a courtroom.”

She knows that. And maybe she shouldn’t find that reassuring, but she does.

“You doing all right?” His voice gentles. When her eyes meet his, he grimaces. “Stupid question, I know. You’re not—”

“I’m not,” she agrees. “But things’ll get better.” She tries to smile at him. “How’s Tansy doing?”

They spend half an hour talking of inconsequential things, and it’s helps Karen feel human again. She listens to Frank explain how Tansy is learning how to fetch specific items—a pretend phone, a leash, and even a treat without just eating it. The latter is the most difficult for her, as Tansy still adores her food above all else. “She’d eat all day if I let her,” Frank says. “We’d have to roll her down the hall.”

“Well, if anyone can train her, it’s you,” Karen says. “Mr. Dog Whisperer.”

“I caught you talking to her, too,” Frank replies.

“Yeah, but she never listened to me the way she does for you.”

When their time is up, Karen realizes that she hasn’t brought anything. No books, no sweets, no cookies for the dog. She hesitates, an apology on her lips, but the look Frank gives her—it silences her. “You brought down a billionaire mob boss and survived. And you’re mad at yourself because you forgot to bring me coffee.”

She shakes her head. “I didn’t bring him down.”

“Anyone else would’ve let it go,” he says. “Would’ve taken whatever bribe Union Allied offered and then tried to forget everything. You went after him. And I don’t care if some masked asshole was the one to put him behind bars—you’re the one who found the evidence that’s gonna keep him there.” He nods at her. “You did good.”

And with Fisk awaiting trial, life goes on.

She helps serve meals with Curtis on Saturdays. It’s something she starts doing a few weeks after the incident with Wesley, when she needs to get out of her apartment. Having worked in a kitchen before, she falls back into old rhythms: keeping trays of food at safe temperatures, unloading shipments from a local food bank, and making conversation with the regulars. Curtis knows everyone by name; many of them are also vets, and some attend his weekly group sessions. There’s a young man with blonde hair and slouched shoulders that never quite meets her eyes. It takes about a month before she learns his name is Lewis. There’s a Bobby and a Jake and even a Todd, but Karen tries not to hold that against him.

Karen likes Curtis. He’s a restful person to be around—never demanding or stressful. He’s one of the few people who doesn’t judge her for her friendship with Frank. Rather, Curtis seems glad that Frank has another friend. She trades stories with him: she tells Curtis about Frank in prison, how he has taken Lucero under his wing and is working on training Tansy, and Curtis talks about the time they served together. It’s all non-classified stuff—Curtis mentions Frank playing guitar and how he used to keep his kids’ drawings near his bed, even out when he was sleeping in a tent. She learns more about Curtis, as well. He’s a genuinely nice person, but there’s steel beneath his kindness. There’s a little bitterness, too, but it’s tempered with humor. She understands that—and honestly, it makes her like him a little more. She’s no saint, and neither is he. They’re both just trying to do their best.

Work at Nelson & Murdock continues at a brisk pace. Their involvement in the case against Fisk boosts their visibility, and soon they have people lurking in their tiny waiting room, clustered around and looking for help. Karen has to reorganize her filing system, trying to keep on top of everything. But despite their new influx of business, Karen knows the numbers aren’t adding up all that well. She sends out invoices and receives fresh pies instead of cash.

She likes pie. But it won’t pay the office’s rent.

Fisk’s trial comes and goes—mostly because Fisk takes some kind of plea deal. He vanishes from the news cycle so thoroughly that she wonders if he doesn’t have another mole at the Bulletin. He’s going to ground, probably trying to recoup some of his losses. It’s only because Karen has an alert for Fisk’s name that she sees the tiny online article that emerges about Fisk’s destination.

It takes everything in her not to gasp when she reads the words. Fisk is going to prison—that’s no surprise.

But he’s going to her prison.

Their prison.

Her stomach squirms and she bites down her lip. She can’t swear, not in the office, not with clients waiting to speak with Matt. And she can’t just rush out of this office or pick up the phone and make an obviously personal phone call. Fisk is headed towards Frank, and she cannot tell if this is the universe making amends or cursing her a second time.

The thought of Frank facing off against Fisk—it has her heartbeat racing. Frank has proven again and again that he is a force to be reckoned with, but Fisk is all of her nightmares. He is the shadow that loomed over Hell’s Kitchen for months, and she doesn’t want him anywhere near Frank.

She texts Curtis beneath her desk. Her fingers are clumsy with adrenaline, but she manages, When are you seeing Frank next?

His reply comes a minute later. This Friday. Why? You want that day?

They’ve been alternating, every few weeks. Frank only has so much allotted visitation time, and Karen won’t take it all. Frank has other friends, should have other friends.

I can’t, she types back. I’m working. But can you tell him something for me?


She hesitates. Curtis only knows the vaguest outlines of her arrest and involvement with Union Allied; she prefers not to talk about it, and he doesn’t pry. There isn’t time to explain. Tell Frank not to kill him. He’ll understand.

This time, the reply comes faster. What’s going on?

Cliff notes version is that the man who tried to have me killed is headed to prison. Tell Frank not to kill him.

Oh. The single-word reply almost makes Karen smile. It sums things up well enough. Will do.

She gets her reply on Friday afternoon.

She’s in court with Foggy, helping him defend an older lady whose car was damaged in a hit and run. So she gets the voicemail when she’s in the hallway, after the verdict has been read out and Foggy is quietly congratulating their client.

“Hey,” comes the familiar voice. Her stomach swoops at just the sound of it—and Jesus, that makes her sound like a giddy teenager again. But it’s true. “Just so you know, I had to listen a ten minute lecture from Curtis about how I shouldn’t extend my prison sentence unnecessarily by adding more crimes to the list. He seemed to think I was gonna do something stupid. Wonder where he got that idea from.”

She snorts.

The recording pauses as Frank exhales, then he says, “He came in yesterday. In a different cell block. Couldn’t touch him, even if I wanted to.”

He wants to, she can hear that in his voice. There’s a note of promise, of quiet anger. And she does understand that—she felt that anger just before she pulled the trigger on Wesley. When he threatened Ben and Foggy and Matt and Frank… something in her just snapped. She knows herself well enough to understand that she’ll go to terrible lengths to protect the people that she loves. She can’t ask Frank to do any less.

But this isn’t protection, it’s vengeance. And it won’t help her or Frank.

“I’m not gonna do anything stupid,” he says. “Wouldn’t do that to Tans. Or the kid. So you can stop worrying.” There’s another breath, and she can see him so clearly in her mind’s eye: the phone cradled in one of his big hands, his mouth against the speaker. His words are softer. “I’ll sleep better at night, though, knowing he’s in here and not out there.” Another breath. “See you soon.”

There’s a click and the voicemail ends.

Karen doesn’t delete that voicemail. She knows herself well enough—she’ll listen a few more times, until she has every word committed to memory.

She shouldn’t do this, she knows. She’s already in way over her head when it comes to Frank Castle, but falling for him was like was falling into quicksand. Once she realized how deep she’d waded in, it was too late.

Time passes in a blur. There are more cases—smaller ones, but there is still paperwork and invoices and research to be filed. Karen keeps the offices running smoothly while Foggy and Matt do their thing. Foggy has been taking a few longer lunches; Karen suspects that he may have gotten back together with his ex, because at one point there is lipstick smeared at the corner of his mouth. She declines to say anything about it. As for Matt, he seems single and comfortable with it. She’s a bit surprised he doesn’t have anyone, if she’s honest. Matt is one of the nicest guys she’s ever met, and he’s smart and has a good job. There should be at least a few people sniffing around, but so far the only ladies coming to see Matt are the older ones carrying pies and cakes in thanks for helping with their wills.

It’s sweet. It doesn’t pay the bills, but it’s sweet.

It feels like Karen’s life has leveled out, and she’s grateful for the lack of danger or drama. Mostly she just worries about paying her rent and if she has food in the fridge—normal worries, ones she is almost grateful to have.

Those worries change the next time she goes to visit Frank and he isn’t there.

Lucero sits behind the glass. He looks just as Karen remembers—his features young and boyish, a wide grin across his face. She smiles in response, but there’s more than a little confusion to it. “Hi,” she says, picking up the phone.

“Hey, you,” Lucero replies. “Sorry about this—I had to sweet-talk my way in with one of the guards to take this slot, but luckily he forgot his daughter’s birthday party and I’d just knitted a pair of matching pink gloves. Fingerless. I haven’t figured out the finger thing, yet.” All of this comes out in the span of a few breaths, leaving Karen blinking and wordless.

“Frank’s all right,” Lucero continues. “I mean, he’s doing better.”

Her heartbeat picks up. Fisk. He must have done something, made a move against Frank. This will be retribution for her part in taking him down. “What happened?”

Some of the smile leaves Lucero’s face. “Same thing that always happens. Some new guy—younger than me, the idiot—with something to prove thought he’d show how badass he was by taking on the Punisher. It would’ve been fine, but Tansy was there and Frank had her to think about—the dog’s fine,” he adds hastily, when the blood drains from Karen’s face. “She’s okay. She’s staying with me while Frank’s in bed.”

At least it wasn’t Fisk. It’s a small reassurance, but Karen breathes a little easier. Then the last sentence registers and Karen goes pale. “Frank’s on bedrest?”

Lucero winces. “He’s gonna be okay. I should’ve led with that. He’s got a lot of bruises, a sprained knee, and some staples in his head—there was a piece of sharpened wood involved—but he’s fine. He was more worried about missing your visit today, but he just got out of the infirmary yesterday. He’s supposed to keep his weight off the knee, so I told him I’d take the bullet and talk with you.” He grins. “Such a hardship.”

“How is he?” she asks.

“Pissed off. Sore. Grousing at me whenever I try to make him coffee.” He shrugs, and Karen takes this as, It’s Frank. Which means that he’s beat to hell, but he’ll recover. He always does.

“And the other guy?”

“Cracked skull and missing a spleen.” Lucero’s smile turns a little wicked. “That piece of sharpened wood got put to good use.”

She can imagine. But even the thought of Frank taking down his attacker isn’t a soothing one. Her fingers twist in her lap, anxiety a knot in her belly. She knew, on a gut level, that this would happen again. It’s only a matter of time until someone gets lucky, until the criminals that hate Frank finally get to him. And he isn’t invulnerable—particularly with a dog to protect. Tansy still has at least a month or two until she graduates from service training; Karen has been keeping track of the weeks. Even if she can’t be involved, she still loves that dog dearly.

She talks with Lucero for the rest of the visit, hearing about his family and catching up on prison gossip. When it’s time for her to leave, Karen says, “I’ve got another box of gifts that should be put through security in the next few days, but if you need anything—or if Frank needs medical supplies—please call me.”

Lucero’s face sobers. “Yeah. I will. I’ll keep an eye on him.”

“Thanks.” She touches the glass in farewell.

“Say hi to the outside world for me.”

“Will do.”

It’s only when she’s out of the prison, standing at the bus stop, that she finally allows the fear to set in. She’s shaking as she steps aboard the bus, trying to keep her hands steady as she sets her purse between her knees. The memory of Frank bleeding out in a closet is one she will never forget, and it still ranks among her worst moments—which is saying something, considering her life. She remembers the pallor of his skin as the life drained out of him, the way he slipped from her grasp. And that was before she realized how deep her feelings for him went.

He can’t stay in prison forever. They’re going to kill him in there.

This has to stop.

Foggy and Matt are eating lunch in the offices when Karen returns. She takes the morning off on visitation day, and she more than makes up for it in the afternoon. “Hey,” says Foggy, swallowing a mouthful of sandwich.

Karen murmurs her own greeting, setting her purse inside her desk drawer. She doesn’t sit, though. She gazes down at the desk, the paperwork, without truly seeing any of it. “Can I talk to you guys about something?”

“Yes, of course,” Matt says. His voice is warm, the kind to invite confidences. It doesn’t make what she has to say any easier.

Karen takes a steadying breath. “I want you to take on a case.”

“Whose?” Foggy perks up, setting his own sandwich down. As if he’s ready to begin work at once.

“Frank Castle’s,” says Karen.

Her answer is silence. It feels oppressive, too heavy with every passing moment. Foggy picks his sandwich back up.

“Karen,” Matt says, and his voice is too gentle. It makes her hackles rise up. Because she knows everything they’re going to say: Castle’s in prison, his case is finished, working on the appeal isn’t the right image for them, he’s guilty and they have other clients to worry about.

“I wasn’t raped in prison,” she says bluntly.

Foggy chokes. He coughs, swallows audibly a few times, looking at her with watering eyes.

“I know you think I was,” she says. “Everyone does. That’s the first thing people think when they hear I was held in an all-men’s prison. And that’s not without cause. Less than a week in, three guys cornered me. And then only a few weeks after that, there was a ‘security glitch’ that opened all of the cell doors in my unit. Over twenty men tried to get to me. And after that, a man called Jackson cornered me in the prison chapel, threatened me with a knife and punched me so hard that I wasn’t conscious for probably about a minute.”

Foggy and Matt are both so still she cannot tell if they’re breathing.

“And you know who stopped them?” she says. “Frank Castle. That first time he didn’t even know my name—he just heard me scream for help and came running. It didn’t matter how many men there were, how dangerous the situation was—Frank Castle was there. He told me he wasn’t going to let anyone hurt me, because it was the right thing to do. And he never once, not once, failed to live up to that promise. He spent two weeks in the prison infirmary because one of my attackers stabbed him through the lung.

“And when a CO thought it’d be funny to force us to room together, he slept on the floor for days. He injured his back sleeping there, because he didn’t want me to feel unsafe. When I had to shower with everyone else, it was Frank who promised he’d drive off anyone who looked at me. And he did. Every damned time, he did. And he never once asked for anything in return.”

She takes a breath. “I know what you think about him. I know what the world thinks—and I get it. He killed people. I’m not denying that. But it isn’t like he was a serial killer out butchering people for fun. Those gangs he hunted were the ones who killed his family.” Matt’s fingers tighten around his coffee cup, but he doesn’t speak. “Frank watched them die, and I think it broke something inside of him and prison isn’t the place to fix that. And I know you don’t want to take on this case, I know, but please. Just for me—please. Can we look into his case and just… see if anything can be done? Get him into protective custody, at least? The other criminals are going to kill him in there.”

It’s Matt who speaks first. “You’re a good person, Karen,” he says quietly. “And you’re right that prison isn’t the right place for someone to recover from a trauma. If this is something you really want, we can look into his case—but only if he agrees to take us on as representation.”

“He will,” she says. She’ll talk him into it, if she has to.

“You’re going along with this?” Foggy says to Matt. He looks aghast. “I mean—I get it, Karen. I really do. The guy did you a solid, but we’re still talking about the Punisher.”

“If things had gone differently,” Matt says, and there’s a tone in his voice that makes Karen think that he wishes only he and Foggy were in the room. “Maybe it would’ve been a different man in that cell.”

Foggy’s face darkens. “Nope. No way.”

Karen frowns, but neither seems willing to explain. “You get Frank to hire us,” says Matt. “And we’ll do our best, okay?”

Karen nods. “Thank you.”

She dreams about him.

It starts off as a normal dream—she’s trying to find paperwork that no one else can, and for some reason it’s at the bottom of a lake and she has to swim for it, and there’s no bathing suit so she shucks off her clothing and steps into the cool water. But before she can dive deep, there are hands against her skin. A soft breath touches her temple, and even without him speaking, she knows who it is. There’s only ever been one person who felt so sturdy and reassuring beneath her hands. Her eyes are closed when he kisses her, and it doesn’t matter that she’s falling into water, that she can’t breathe. She doesn’t need to breathe, not now. Not with his hands skimming down her body, warm and sure. She parts her legs, and his fingers are there, pressing up and in—

A car backfires outside of her apartment, waking her from a dead sleep.

Her heart is pounding and she has to check to make sure there’s no one trying to get in. Most of her dreams these days are of a warehouse and the smell of a nearby river and the heft of a gun in her hands. It’s almost a reassurance to have a dream of something else—it reminds her that she can dream of something else.

But then the details come flooding back to her and heat suffuses her cheeks.

It isn’t the first time she’s thought about kissing Frank, but those were always half-formed fragments that she brushed aside. She shouldn’t be thinking about this. It’s Frank. Who is utterly loyal to his wife, even now. He’s never once mentioned wanting anyone else—and even if he did, there’s no guarantee that Karen is even his type. From the pictures Karen has seen of her, Maria was a gorgeous brunette who wore sundresses and motherhood with ease. She looked kind and decent. Karen dresses for office life, carries a pistol in her purse, and tends to leave bodies in her wake.

The ghost sensations of the dream come back to her—fingers across her bare skin, a warm mouth against hers, and that flush deepens along her chest and neck. It’s a purely physical reaction to the dream, she tells herself, when she shifts and feels the sticky fabric of her panties. It’s probably because she hasn’t had sex in so long.

She tries to imagine some faceless man when she slides her hand beneath her panties, but she can’t manage it. It’s Frank’s hard jaw and dark eyes she sees when the first jolt of pleasure goes through her. She’s a little out of practice and it takes a few tries to find a good rhythm but it hardly matters when her body is so eager for the touch. She didn’t even realize how much she missed sex until she has three fingers sliding up into herself, wishing they were thicker. She has seen Frank naked before—all of those times in the shower—and while she tried not to look, she couldn’t help but see. Frank isn’t small and she’d probably feel the ache of that stretch with the first few thrusts. She wants it, wants him, in ways she could never admit during the daylight hours. She still remembers what he felt like when he was hard, that morning when he woke with an erection he was adorably mortified about. Karen laughed it off, because she knew it was a purely physiological response, but now a fantasy intrudes upon her thoughts: her pushing aside the blankets, swinging a leg across his waist and straddling him. His hands on her hips, sliding up her back. She can imagine how it might feel to kiss him, to feel that hard cock push into her. Or maybe he’d be the one to sweep the blankets aside, to kiss her breathless and press her down into the thin mattress. He’s a little old-fashioned; she could see him preferring missionary. How would he fuck her? Slow and sure or frantic and needy?

She comes with a small gasp, her cunt keeps wetly clasping at her fingers, trying to pull them deeper. A full body shudder goes through her and rubs harder, imagining Frank finishing with her, burying himself inside of her.

When she’s finished, she lays there, stroking her clit with her thumb as her breathing slows, a few aftershocks rolling through her. In her mind’s eye, Frank is kissing her, his mouth tender against hers. She isn’t sure if he’d be the kind of lover who’d want to hold her afterward or if he’d drop right off to sleep—and with that thought, the fantasy breaks. She’s alone in bed, with sweat-dampened skin and a vague sense of shame. She doesn’t know what it would be like to sleep with Frank because it’s never going to happen. He isn’t hers to fantasize about. She should find someone else, go on a date or two

Or maybe she’ll just buy a vibrator.

Matt’s promise to help with Frank’s case lasts about a week.

Because then Matt comes into Nelson & Murdock with fresh bruises—and Karen is really starting to worry about him; maybe she should recommend a service dog—and a case about some new vigilante calling himself Nighthawk. Kyle Richmond is some millionaire’s kid that dropped out of college who started wearing a mask and going after drunk drivers and honestly, Karen is beginning to think there’s more vigilantes in Hell’s Kitchen than there are normal people. As for why a trust fund kid is so eager to hire Nelson & Murdock, Karen doesn’t know. Surely the kid’s family has more prominent lawyers. Whatever the reason, Kyle Richmond is in Matt’s office while he and Foggy try to come up with a defense for a vigilante.

This case takes priority—and while it makes Karen grind her teeth, she gets it. Frank is already incarcerated; Kyle Richmond has a trial coming up. He needs lawyers more than Frank does. So they’ll worry about the Punisher’s appeal in a few months.

Foggy doesn’t want to take this Nighthawk case either, saying that his sources—Marci, Karen knows—are telling him that DA Reyes is gunning for vigilantes. She’s the one who handled Frank’s case and now she wants Nighthawk, too. Unspoken is the implication that there are others out there, too. Karen has heard of the private investigator who is ridiculously strong and of course, there’s Daredevil.

But Matt refuses to give up on the Nighthawk case, no matter how much bad publicity it might involve. That’s how Karen finds herself talking to the DA’s assistant, asking if he has any files on Nighthawk.

“Why in the world should I give you those?” Blake Tower asks. It’s long after business hours, but here he is—with a cold cup of coffee and lines beneath his eyes. Karen knows his type: hungry and ambitious. She’s seen enough of office life to guess at how much work he does after hours, how much of his life he’s put into this job. So she tells him about all of the people DA Samantha Reyes has screwed over, and how easily he could be one of them. Karen does her research and this case is no exception.

And part of her wanted to know more about the woman who put Frank behind bars.

Karen’s ploy works, and Blake Tower loudly decides to go get another cup of coffee while his desktop computer is unlocked and left unattended. Karen sits behind it and prints out Nighthawk’s file. Just as she is prepare to rise, a thought occurs to her.

She types Frank’s name into the search, but nothing comes up. Karen blinks a few times. DA Reyes definitely handled the Castle case—that’s a matter of public record. So why is nothing coming up?

Because there’s something to hide.

Something like vindication goes through Karen, an excitement that she felt back when she was working with Ben and uncovering Fisk’s crimes. Karen rises from the chair and goes to the filing cabinet. It’s organized by year, then by case name, and she finds the Castle file—because they’d want to keep physical records, even if they erased the digital ones. They could always blame that on computer error, but they can’t make all of his information vanish completely.

She tucks the file into her purse and hurriedly leaves the building.

The Nighthawk information goes to the Nelson & Murdock offices, but Karen keeps Frank’s file for herself. She takes it to her apartment, spreading sheafs of paper out on the floor.

The first thing she sees is an x-ray. A skull. She traces the outline of a bullet hole with her fingertips, then shivers She picks up the second photograph. It’s of bodies, labeled by evidence numbers and carefully tagged. She turns over the photo and sees hand-written explanation on the back. “CARTEL MEMBERS ON MEAT HOOKS.”

Karen swallows a few times, then she goes to her kitchen and opens a bottle of whisky. She keeps it on hand, just in case, for times like this. She pours herself a small glass before returning to the file.

And in those next few hours, she comes to know the Punisher as well as she knows Frank Castle.

When she’s finished, she understands Foggy and Matt’s reluctance a little better. She has always known that Frank carved a bloody path of vengeance through the city, but there’s a difference between knowing a thing and seeing it. She wasn’t part of Hell’s Kitchen when all of this went down, so she never understood exactly how much carnage was wrought. There are bodies, so many bodies. And if Karen know Frank, then these files probably only account for a fraction of them. It only stopped when he was captured and tortured by the Irish—there are pictures of Frank at the hospital looking like death warmed over. Her heart twinges at the sight of his bruised face and his dark eyes. He looks utterly miserable—face stony and eyes distant. He looks like the man she first met in prison, the one who dragged two men off of her. He looks like the Punisher.

But the Punisher isn’t the entirety of Frank Castle. He’s more than all of this—and yes, it is part of him. But Frank is still one of the most decent people she’s ever met. He’s observant and thoughtful, kind in a quiet way, brave and ferocious when it comes to protecting those who need it, and at the very core of him is a sense of honor that will not break. He is the man who spent hours patiently teaching Tansy how to walk on a leash, who kept Lucero safe, who taught Karen how to defend herself, who offered up his own house when she needed a place to stay, who loved his family more than he loved anything—and he watched them all die.

She is doing this as much for his family, as she’s doing it for Frank. For that little boy with all of the army figurines in his toy chest and the little girl with the Golden Book resting on her bedside table and the wife that clearly adored her husband and her kids. They all deserve justice.

Karen can’t let it go. She won’t let it go.

She ends up investigating Frank’s case with Ben’s boss.

If Nelson & Murdock won’t help her, she’ll have to take what aid she can elsewhere. Ellison demands rights to the story, if there is a story, which is a price Karen is willing to pay. And she finds that she likes Ellison, for all that she once accused him of being corrupt. He’ll tell her if he thinks a lead is flimsy or if she’s onto something. Karen ends up digging up the official report of how Frank was injured: a random shooting while they were in a car—which is fabricated bullshit, she knows. Frank was at the carousel, he witnessed all of it.

“So he was put in a hospital without an ID?” says Ellison. He’s looking over Frank’s records with a practiced eye. The stacks of the Bulletin are cold, but they’re comfortable during the sweltering summer heat.

“If I didn’t know any better,” Ellison says, when Karen gives him the injury report, “I’d say someone wants Castle dead.”

Karen snorts, but there isn’t much real humor to it.

“I mean, I know a lot of people want him dead now, but before he went on his killing spree,” amends Ellison. “He was put under the name ‘John Doe,’ but I know that carousel—I’ve got kids. First thing you bring is a wallet for the overpriced hot dogs. He was middle class, right?”

“Middle to upper,” says Karen. Owning a house in New York is no small thing, even if it was purchased back when real estate was more affordable.

“Then he had ID,” says Ellison. “He probably had a driver’s license, a credit card. So would his wife, if she was there.”

“She was.”

“And the kids would have school IDs, if they wanted discounts off the carousel tickets.” Ellison shakes his head. “Call me paranoid, but if something looks and smells like a cover-up, it’s probably a cover-up.”

Karen nods, her gaze on the tiny news article. “You think I should talk to someone at the hospital?”

“I think we should talk to whoever signed these death certificates,” Ellison replies. “I’ll make a few calls.”

That night, Karen reads through her notes again before re-warming leftovers for dinner. Her life has become a jumble of the Nighthawk case and the story of Frank Castle, and while she knows she should be working more on the former, the latter has all of her attention. It’s probably unhealthy; she should be living her life, not trying to talk to medical examiners and looking at crime scene photos.

She thinks about seeing a therapist, but she’s pretty sure admitting, “I was framed for murder, put in prison, became cell mates with an actual mass murderer, and now that I’ve been exonerated, I fantasize about having sex with him,” probably won’t go over very well. They’ll think she has Stockholm Syndrome or some other unhealthy attachment. And if she were watching this from the outside, she would have thought that, too.

And in those dark moments, she wonders if any of what she feels is actually real—if the attraction she feels is because she and Frank shared so much trauma together. Maybe if they’d met under normal circumstances, she would have never given him a second glance.

No—no, that’s a lie. He’s striking enough that she’d have looked at him, regardless of their circumstances. But who knows if she’d have fallen for him as hard as she did.

She feels caught in between two parts of herself: the woman she should have been if she’d never gone to prison and the woman that emerged from the penitentiary.

So when Matt kisses her on a rainy night, she lets him.

She ends up seeing Frank a few days afterward. It’s been a busy day—she’s supposed to call Ellison to set up a time to talk to the medical examiner before meeting Matt for dinner. So she’s dressed in her date attire, hours before the date is even supposed to happen. She does have the high heels stashed in her purse, because she’s more comfortable in flats. The CO searching her things gives the high heels an incredulous look, then Karen a more suspicious one. As if he thinks she’s hiding weapons in her shoes. “Date night,” she says. “You can keep them here if you think I’m going to crack a bulletproof window with them.”

The guard grunts and passes her purse back, seemingly satisfied.

Frank limps into the visitation room. He’s making an effort to hide it, but she can see the way he’s favoring his left side. The bruises from his last fight are smudges beneath his left eye and across his nose. He looks a bit like a faded painting—faded hues of green and brown. She sits, takes the phone and says, “Hello, handsome.”

He laughs into the phone and the sound makes her feel warmer. “Yeah, yeah. I know. I’m not as pretty as Lucero. But at least I won’t talk your ear off.”

“It’s good to see you.” Her gaze catches on those bruises. There are more—she can see what looks like fingerprints around Frank’s throat. “Even if you do look like someone used you for a punching bag.”

“Other guy was transferred,” says Frank, sobering. “For his protection, not mine. Some asshole kid who wanted to get into one of the gangs. They told him he’d be welcome if he took me out. He got in a few lucky hits—mostly because he took a kick at the dog. Got in the way, took a few hits. Nothing major.”

“Lucero said it was something like that.” She exhales, a little shakily. She can picture it all too easily: some new inmate, sharpened piece of wood in hand, trying to take on Frank, attacking Tansy when he needed to surprise Frank. And now he’s limping.

“I’m fine,” he says, more softly. “Karen.”

She swallows and has to look away for a few moments; she fears what she might give away in her eyes. He can read her too well, and in this moment she’s already off balance.

“I just don’t like seeing you hurt.” She runs her fingers through her hair. It’s an old nervous habit.

“Hey, hey, don’t do that.” Frank leans forward. “Don’t you worry about me.”

He may as well ask her to stop breathing—it isn’t going to happen.

“You’re gonna mess up your hair,” he says, nodding at her hands. As if she gives a single shit. “Looks good.”

“Thanks.” She did take more time with it this morning than she usually would—curling the edges, trying to give her hair some definition. It’s a little longer now, almost brushing her shoulders.

“You going out tonight?” he asks.

She feels color flood her cheeks. She should have known he would guess; he was married. He’ll know the difference between a work dress and a date dress. “You trying to distract me?” she asks.

“Yeah,” he says. “It working?”

She lets out a small laugh. “Terrible distraction. But yes—I have a date tonight.” She forces a smile, but it doesn’t feel natural. “Figured it was time.”

He nods. “Good for you.”

She hasn’t been sure how he would react; part of her yearns for something—something she can’t even truly give a name to. But this isn’t the time to figure out her screwed up feelings for Frank Castle.

“Distractions aside, you are doing okay, right?” she says. “No problems with Fisk?”

“I’m fine.” He shrugs off her concern. “Fisk is laying low. Rumor is that Dutton reminded him exactly who is in charge.”

“Dutton?” Karen recalls the older man who so cavalierly propositioned her for sex and ruled the prison with a laidback confidence. She knew Dutton was powerful in this prison, but she didn’t realize he could threaten Fisk.

“Dutton’s got this place locked down,” Frank replies. “All the smuggling goes through him. He’s got the money, the goods, the power. If he wanted, he could’ve done more. Fisk’s not the power in here, and he knows it.” There’s no mistaking the satisfaction in Frank’s tone. “I’ve seen him a few times in the mess. Keeps to himself. Mostly eats with a few of the white collar guys and whatever muscle they can pay for.”

“But you haven’t confronted him,” Karen says.

Frank shakes his head. “I’ve got Tansy and the kid,” he says simply.

And for him, it is that simple. As long as Frank has people depending on him, he isn’t going to do anything to endanger them. If things were different, if Frank were all alone in there, it would probably be a different story.

“How’s Tansy doing?” she asks.

“She’s learned how to fetch things by name. Well, some things. ‘Leash’ is good. Same with ‘treat bag.’ We’re still working on household items.” Frank smiles a little. “Lucero made her booties.”

“No,” Karen says, delighted.

“Yeah,” Frank answers. “He put her on them, and she didn’t know how to walk. Kept looking at her feet and then at me like it was some kind of magic trick. We’d made her feet disappear. Tried to get her to walk toward us by offering her a treat and she moved like she was walking on lava.”

Karen breaks into a startled laugh. “Why’d Lucero knit her booties?”

“Kid was worried about her feet getting cold in the winter,” says Frank, with a snort.

“That’s sweet, I guess.”

“When she figured out she could pull them off, she chewed two into gummy pink messes. The other two were barely salvaged.”

Karen laughs again, some of the worry leaking out of her. By the time their visit is up, she’s relaxed. He’s good at that—making her feel normal even when things are screwed up. “You have a good time tonight, okay?” he says, when she’s hanging up the phone.

“Thanks,” she says. She touches her fingers to the glass in farewell, then leaves the room.

The date is weird.

First of all, neither of them like the restaurant. Matt seems distracted the whole time, orders some terrible wine, and then Karen finally takes control of the situation and drags them both to an Indian place she knows. The night gets a little better after that, but things are still unsettled. It’s like they’re out of step with one another, each a beat behind the other in conversation.

Matt kisses her again at the end of the night, and again, it’s nice. But there’s no fire behind that kiss, no great swell of emotion.

Well, she’s hard worse first dates. And maybe she’s out of practice; this could be her fault. She’ll try harder next time.

The more Karen looks into the day the Castle family was killed, the more she’s certain that there’s some kind of conspiracy.

It’s not just because she lived through one herself. It’s not. There’s so much evidence: from the way the Castle family supposedly died—and it wasn’t in a drive-by shooting, Karen knows that—from the DNR placed on Frank at the behest of Samantha Reyes, to the testimony of Frank’s nurse—who’s been fired, because of course he has—to the fact that in the NYPD files on the carousel shooting, a body simply goes missing in the pictures. It’s there in one picture and gone the next.

Matt and Foggy have little time for her theories; Foggy is neck-deep in the Nighthawk trial and Matt is never around. He says there’s a new client, someone wealthy and secretive, and he won’t give her time to ask about it. He just kisses Karen on the cheek and promises to talk later.

Thank God for Ellison. He’s the one person who actually seems to take Karen’s word seriously. And he doesn’t treat her like an ex-con or like she’s delusional, either. When she asks about it, Ellison shrugs. “Ben trusted you,” he says. “Ben was a pretty good judge of character. And besides, if this does pan out—I mean. A long form piece on the truth about Frank Castle and a corrupt DA could just be Pulitzer-bait.”

She has to smile. Ellison’s nothing if not forthright about his own reasons. She likes that honesty.

They meet with the medical examiner the following Tuesday.

The medical examiner is sweating bullets through the whole interview. Ellison is like a shark, scenting blood on the water, and it’s fascinating to watch him work. He lays down a groundwork of easy to answer questions before he goes in for the kill about the Castle case. Karen is the one to ask about the way the bullets hit them, the caliber used, and why there was no ID. Then they ask about the carousel, about the bodies that came out of that massacre. The man is flustered, stumbling over his answers, and finally, when Karen presses him, the ME admits that he did examine the body that went missing in the NYPD photos.

“I can’t tell you much,” he says. “But it was an undercover cop, okay? Just—just keep my name out of this.” He’s wracked with guilt; Karen can see that. He has the look of a man who’s been pressured into a silence he never wished to keep.

When they leave the meeting, Karen and Ellison talk on the way back to the Bulletin’s offices. It’s just after the lunch hour and the sidewalks are bustling. 

“Someone threatened him,” Karen says. “Who?”

“Better question to ask,” says Ellison, “is why? What does NYPD have to lose if it’s revealed there was an undercover cop at a drug deal?”

Karen has a sinking feeling in her middle, a terrible weight. “Because they arranged the whole thing. It was—it was a set-up.”

Ellison stops in his tracks. They’re on a busy sidewalk and a few other New Yorkers glare as they go around. Ellison pays them no attention. “You’re saying they set up a drug deal sting in a busy park. With people all around. And when things went to shit—”

“People got killed,” Karen breathes. “And they couldn’t—they couldn’t make it public. They had to keep it quiet. Because if it got out—they’d be responsible.”

Ellison steps off of the busy sidewalk, ducking into the awning of a nearby building. Karen goes with him. “This is all conjecture,” Ellison says quietly. “All we have is an anonymous source and a theory. We need more.”

Karen nods. “I can do that.”

If Karen had her way, all she would be working on is the Castle case. But the Nighthawk one takes up more of her time. Kyle Richmond is going to trial and Foggy is nearly in a panic.

Matt keeps vanishing. He says he’s working on a different case, but Karen hasn’t seen any case files. When she asks him where he’s going, he wants to know if she’s asking as his employee or as his girlfriend and she’s so taken aback she doesn’t know how to answer.

They had one date, shared a few kisses. But it seems Matt is farther along this road than she ever thought they were.

“Both,” she finally replies—because she wants to want this.

“You’ve got to trust me on this,” says Matt, finally. “It’s for everyone—okay?” She has no idea what he means by that, but Matt kisses her on the cheek and leaves her and Foggy in the courthouse to sort out Kyle Richmond’s opening statements for themselves.

Everything feels unbalanced, like it’s tipping to one side.

As the old poem goes, the center cannot hold.

And then everything falls apart.

Karen finds a woman in Matt’s bed.

Karen stands there, files for the Nighthawk case still under her arm. Foggy asked her to come here, told her that he needed Matt’s help. She came here because she thought it was the right thing to do, and now she’s looking at… this.

Matt scrambles, stumbles over his explanations in a way she has never heard before. Gone is the lawyer and confident man who won her case—he’s been replaced by someone who is clearly trying to sort out whichever lie he should give Karen.

Or maybe this is who Matt always was, and she just never saw it until this moment.

The betrayal she feels is wrenching, but not for the reasons she should probably be feeling it. There’s no jealousy—but rather, she’s angry that Matt would do this in the first place. He was supposed to be one of the good ones. She trusts very few people, but she trusted him. That’s gone now, and she feels the absence sharply.

She talks over Matt’s fumbling explanations and pleas for her to wait, telling him that Foggy needs his friend. Which is true. Foggy does need Matt, far more than Karen has never needed him. So she turns on her heel and leaves the apartment, ignoring Matt’s calls after her.

She’s angry, but she’s angry for all of the wrong reasons.

She isn’t jealous; seeing that other woman in Matt’s bed made Karen feel numb. Matt was supposed to be her friend; he was supposed to be normal; he was supposed to be the better option; he was supposed to distract her from Frank. Frank would never do this to her. He wouldn’t lie to her, wouldn’t have tried to hide those people, wouldn’t have kissed her then vanished when his friends needed him.

She stumbles on the stairs. Has to put out a hand and brace herself against the wall, breath shaking in and out of her.

She’s in love with Frank Castle.

And it isn’t just trauma and shared experience. It isn’t that he saved her again and again. It’s the fact that she trusts him above all others, that he knows her and everything that she’s done, that he entrusted her with his home when she needed a place to stay, that he has never once judged her, that he’s thoughtful and kind and has that dry sense of humor and—he’s Frank. He’s Frank Castle and she loves him more than she has allowed herself to love anyone since she was nineteen.

It feels like she’s been trying to paper over that Frank-shaped hole in her chest with Matt, and only now she has realized how utterly futile it is.

She isn’t sure what is going on with Matt—if maybe he’s a serial cheater or truly an alcoholic—but she’s done with him in any other capacity than professional.

And then the professional part is gone, too.

Foggy wins the Nighthawk case, but he does it alone.

Something happens, some kind of argument that Karen isn’t witness to. But it’s the final straw.

Nelson & Murdock is nothing more than a rented space whose lease will be up at the end of the month. Karen isn’t sure why; no one will tell her anything, and at this point, she doesn’t really care. She’s got no job, no new leads on the carousel shooting, and it looks like her life has fallen apart again.

She’ll land on her feet. She always does. But it doesn’t make the loss any less jarring.

When DA Samantha Reyes summons the remnants of Nelson & Murdock to her office, Karen is almost expecting it.

Foggy looks baffled. “If she’s pissed we won Kyle Richmond’s case,” he begins to say, but Karen shakes her head.

“I don’t think it has anything to do with Nighthawk,” she says grimly.

Matt tilts his head. “What is it, Karen?”

“Nothing,” Karen says curtly. She’s trying her best to be civil, but she being stuck in a small office with her sort-of ex and her friend is playing havoc with her self control. She doesn’t know where to look or how to sit, not with Foggy on one side and Matt on the other. The tension between Foggy and Matt is still palatable, thick between them. Karen doesn’t know what happened; it isn’t her place to ask. Their friendship is their friendship. And honestly, right now, she has other things to worry about. 

DA Samantha Reyes is wearing a sweatshirt and her hair is mussed when she walks into her office. She looks off-balance and anxious and maybe that should soften Karen toward her but it doesn’t. 

Because with Reyes standing there, looking half-terrified and half-furious, Karen finally understands the missing part of the puzzle. 

Reyes was the one who went after the Punisher. She built the case against him, made sure Frank would go into general population of a maximum security prison instead of a mental health center. But all this time, Karen was wrong about the reason why. It wasn’t because Frank was a vigilante—that was secondary. It was because Reyes she had everything to lose if the truth came to light. She worked with NYPD, she arranged the undercover cops, and when things went to hell, she tried to cover it up.

“I need all of your files on Frank Castle,” Reyes tells Matt, clearly deciding that he must be the group’s leader. Matt straightens, his fingers flexing against his cane. 

“I’m sorry?” he says politely.

“Frank Castle,” says the DA. “I need everything you have on him. I know you took his case—"

“We’re not Mr. Castle’s lawyers,” says Foggy. “And even if we were, we wouldn’t violate privilege.” He shoots Karen a slightly guilty look. She knows why; they were talking about it before Nighthawk and the whole Matt debacle, but it never happened. He must feel bad about that, even if he never wanted to take on the case in the first place. 

“You have his file,” says Reyes, her temper flaring hot. “I know you took it."

“We don’t have any files on Frank Castle,” says Foggy, sounding bewildered. He shoots a dark look at Matt, but it’s Karen who speaks up.

“Why do you need that information?”

It’s as good as an admission of guilt; the DA’s gaze zeroes in on Karen and stays there. Karen returns the look with her own steel. She isn’t afraid of Samantha Reyes—anger has blunted out the fear, sapped all of the terror from Karen’s body. This woman tried to kill Frank. Maybe she didn’t put a gun to his head, but she was the one who gave the order to let him die. It was only luck—or his own determination—that kept him in this world. And that is the one thing that Karen cannot forgive.

“Karen?” says Matt. His voice is sharp with accusation. She has to bite down on her reply, because calling him a fucking hypocrite in front of the DA won’t help anyone. Matt has his own life, his own screwed up secrets. The least he could give her is a bit of leniency with her own.

“Why?” says Karen, ignoring Matt’s hand on her shoulder. She shakes him off. “Why’s it suddenly so urgent you talk about Frank Castle?”

“Because,” the DA says and the fear finally leaks through into her voice. “Frank Castle broke out of prison this morning.”

For a moment, Karen’t can’t draw air into her lungs.

She can’t—she can’t have heard that right.

Frank couldn’t have—he couldn’t have. There must be some mix-up, some mistake. Maybe there was a miscount when the COs did their daily population check. Or maybe he’s in the infirmary again and someone forgot to file the paperwork. Maybe Dutton’s pulling strings and wanted to make it look like Frank broke out.

It can’t be true.

Frank is a soldier, not a master criminal. If he knew a way out of prison, he would have told her.

And—and maybe this is entirely self-centered of her, but she truly believes that if Frank knew how to break out of prison, he would have done so after she was kidnapped. She remembers the ferocity in his gaze when she told him what happened; he’s the kind of man who would throw himself into fire to protect his friends. If he knew how to escape, he would have done it then.

There’s no reason for Frank to leave now. Not now.

“Frank couldn’t have broken out of prison,” says Karen numbly.

The DA gives Karen a tight-lipped glare. “There was some kind of massacre. Over ten men were killed—and Frank Castle was at the heart of it. And now he’s gone. They’ve searched the entire prison twice and he’s nowhere in it. Frank Castle was a menace to society the first time, and now he’s out and—” She forces herself to breathe deeply a few moments, then says, “I screwed up. I know I did. If you’ve talked to the people I think you did, then you understand. It was a mistake."

“The entire Castle family getting killed wasn’t a mistake,” Karen says hotly. “It was a massacre. And you sanctioned it, didn’t you?"

Reyes goes still. Regret is heavy on her face, making her look years older. “There was a new player in the drug trade. We had the chance to stop him, and I took it. I—"

But she never finishes that sentence.

Because bullets crack through the window and rip into the office.

Chapter Text

Frank hates knee injuries.

For one thing, ligament injuries take weeks if not months to heal. For another, they’re painful. And lastly, Frank hates showing any visible sign of weakness. So limping is out—and so is using a goddamn cane.

“I am not an old man,” says Frank flatly, when Lucero produces the cane.

“Yes,” replies Lucero, not missing a beat. “Because that’s exactly what I meant by giving you a mobility tool.”

“That’s a fucking cane.”

“You’re the Punisher,” Lucero points out. “Everyone’s gonna think you’ve got a shiv shored in it. Probably even the COs.”

“Where did you even get it?” Frank asks, frowning. They don’t sell anything that could be used as a bludgeoning weapon in the commissary. Lucero glances down at the cane, seems to decide it’s too short, and begins messing with something along the length of it.

“Infirmary,” Lucero answers. “I bribed a nurse.”

“With what?”

Lucero pokes at the cane, grimaces, then holds one edge with his teeth while he tweaks the handle. “Glugs,” he says around the cane.

Frank squints at him. “I can’t tell if you just said ‘gloves’ or ‘drugs.’”

The cane lengthens by a few inches, snapping into place. Lucero grins, triumphant.

“I should’ve grabbed a hearing aid while I was in there, too,” says Lucero. “Old man. Yes, it was gloves, not drugs. It’s cold in the infirmary in winter. My knitted goods are going like hotcakes. Tell Karen if she sends more yarn, I’ll be forever indebted.”

“Like I have to tell her.” Karen has brought yarn for Lucero with every visit. She usually brings coffee for Frank, treats for Tansy, and maybe a sweet or two. If the COs don’t steal them. And a book—always a book.

Lucero holds out the cane. “There you go.”

Frank glares at him. Then at the cane.

“Come on, just beat someone to death with it if they make fun of you,” Lucero says. “It’ll make you feel better.”

Frank grunts, taking the cane. It’s true, he’s been limping since that last attack. He’s been doing better, but the knee injuries always last the longest. “Maybe. I’ll use it after Karen’s visit today.” The last thing he wants is for Karen to see him using a cane—mostly because he knows she’s already going to be worried by the state of his face. He looks like some finger painter got a little too enthusiastic with shades of green and brown. The bruises are old, but that only makes them more visible.

“All right,” Lucero agrees. “Tell her I said hi.”

Frank grunts again in agreement. Tansy, who has been watching all of this from the comfort of her towel-bed, hauls herself to her feet. She looks between Frank and Lucero, tail wagging. She knows the routine. “Here, girl,” says Lucero. Tansy walks over to him, then stands at Lucero’s heel.

Frank can’t take her into the visitation room, so he won’t even try. He leaves the cane on his bed—under the blankets, where no one will see if. Better to limp a little than to show that he needs help.

He goes through the usual search, barely noticing the humiliation of it anymore. He doesn’t care. When he steps into the visitation room, Karen is already waiting.

His breath catches. She looks different—her hair is curled at the edges, her make-up more defined. Her dress is navy blue, fitted through her waist and shoulders. His breath catches. She looks lovely, far too good for a place like this. He sits across from her, picks up the phone.

“Hello, handsome,” she says. Her smile is a little strained, and he realizes that she has been looking him over just as he’s gazed at her. But her scrutiny is shaded with worry, not admiration.

She looks as though she should be stepping into a fine restaurant, and he looks like he just stumbled out of a bar fight. Or a hospital.

His answer comes to his lips without thought. “Yeah, yeah. I know. I’m not as pretty as Lucero. But at least I won’t talk your ear off.”

That earns him a smile, but it’s still not wholly reassured. “It’s good to see you. Even if you do look like someone used you for a punching bag.”

It takes a few minutes to get her to settle; he can see the worry at the edges of her eyes and mouth, a taut energy that never quite leaves her. Even when she admits that she is going on a date tonight, she doesn’t seem to look away from his bruises.

He has to swallow.

A date. He should have known the moment he stepped into the room. It’s been months since she got out; it’s probably a good thing she is moving on.

He is happy for her.

Well, no—he’s not. But he will lie through is teeth about being happy for her, because she deserves that happiness.

They talk about Fisk, and then about more pleasant things: Tansy’s infamous booties that Lucero knitted her, and some prison gossip. When it’s time for her to go, she touches her fingers to the glass. Her nails are painted a dark red tonight. “You have a good time tonight, okay?” he tells her.

She smiles again. “Thanks.” Her fingers drop from the glass as she stands, and he watches as she strides away from the tables out of sight.

Frank lets out a long breath. He replaces the phone on its cradle, rising to his feet.

When he turns, he sees the man standing a few feet away.

Wilson Fisk.

He must have arrived for his own visitation time. One foot is half-raised, as if he were taking a step when Frank turned around. Their eyes meet, and Frank feels that gaze like setting a match to gasoline. Every instinct for violence roars to life, comes awake in an instant. But he stays utterly still—he cannot. Not here. Not unprovoked or like this.

Fisk’s gaze travels over Frank. Then he says, very quietly, “That’s the only open seat.”

It’s true. A quick glance and Frank sees that all of the other places are taken. Frank levels his gaze at Fisk, and still—for a good few more seconds, he does not move. A quiet reminder that Frank does not answer to Fisk. Then Frank takes a step forward. He forces his leg to lengthen fully; he will not limp here, in front of this man.

“Thank you,” Fisk says. His voice is utterly polite, if a bit raspy. It’s not what Frank would have expected. But as Frank strides past him, Fisk says, very quietly, “I see Ms. Page is looking well.”

Frank does not hit him.

But it is a very, very near thing.

“You don’t look at her,” Frank says, barely louder than a whisper. “Don’t you fucking look at her, you got that?”

Fisk gives Frank a cursory smile. “I hardly think Ms. Page would be unaccustomed to the attention of a criminal, given the company she’s choosing to keep—week after week.”

Frank’s temper burns cold—hardening like concrete. He brought down three gangs with that foundation, and if he were free to do so, he’d have happily gone to war with Fisk’s people, too. But Fisk’s empire is all but gone and Fisk himself is probably hoping for a fight. In front of all of these guards and witnesses, Fisk would seem the victim.

Frank won’t give that to him.

Frank tries to put Fisk out of his mind.

Instead, he spends a few days mulling over the thought of Karen on a date. She should be on a date, he thinks. If she wants to date, that’s good. It means she’s moving on from this place.

It still feels like a loss, though.

Rationally, he knows he isn’t losing anything. Karen has never been his to lose. But there’s that very irrational part of him that wants to know who this man is, if only so Frank can grill him and make sure he’s good enough. There are too many assholes out there—and worse, he knows how many dangerous people there are. Too damn many. She’s probably taking precautions like letting her friends know that she’s out with someone new, but it still makes him antsy. He should’ve asked some questions about the guy, but he didn’t want to seem like he was questioning her decision to date again.

He isn’t questioning it. It’s good. She looked good.

She didn’t look all that happy, though, he thinks. But then again, that was probably because she was sitting in a prison visitation room across from a man who looked like a human punching bag.

He should probably try to pull away from her. If he were a decent person, he’d have stopped taking her visits. Just let her go, let her integrate back into the world. Make it a clean break. They were all tangled up in one another’s lives while she was in prison, and if she’s ready to leave all of that behind, Frank should let her. She’s coming back, visiting and bringing gifts, because that’s the kind of person Karen is—kind, compassionate to a fault. She won’t stop coming here until something forces her. Maybe he should do that, if only so she can have a real life again.

Maybe he should. But Karen’s visits are the only bright spot in his life. Well, her and Tansy. And Tansy’s probably going to graduate from her training in a few weeks.

He should let both of them go.

Another few weeks pass. Curtis visits; he’s wearing a suit from work and looks good. He tells Frank about meeting up with Bill for drinks a few nights ago. Bill has been overseas, personally directing some protection detail back in Turkey. Frank can see it—Bill in some fancy suit, kevlar underneath, smooth-talking to some diplomat or businessman. Bill was always the charmer; this line of work suits him. “Keeps asking me to work for him,” Curt says, with a small shake of his head. “Told him I have a job. And I’m out. I’m staying out.”

Frank understands that, too. He would have gotten out—was getting out—when everything went to shit. It wasn’t just that he wanted to be with his family, but the last few months, those last few missions… they still feel far too murky for his liking. Those are a few memories he’d just like to bury.

“How’s the dog doing?” asks Curt. “Rosebud?”

“Tansy,” Frank says evenly, “is doing fine.” Curt has made a joke out of never remembering Tansy’s name, because the first time he heard it, he laughed himself breathless. The big bad Punisher and his dog, named after a flower. How anyone is terrified of you, I’ll never understand.

Karen named her, you asshole.

So I assume you would’ve gone with Daisy?

It’s all in good humor, and even now, it makes Frank crack a smile.

“She’s graduating soon,” says Frank. “She’ll be set up with an owner in maybe a few weeks.”

Curtis nods. “You going to miss her?”

“You going all group on me?” asks Frank, with a sigh.


“Yeah, I’ll miss her. She’s a good dog.” Frank shrugs. “Maybe you could try to get her. That way Karen might see her again, at least.”

“Naw, I’m fine,” says Curt. “And besides, I’m more of a cat person.” He leaned against the table a little. “How is Karen?”

“You’ve probably seen her more recently than me,” Frank says.

Curt shakes his head. “She didn’t come to the church this week. I assumed something came up.”

Frank’s heart thuds in his chest. He forces his breathing to stay even. “You hear from her?”

“Naw. She’s busy—she’ll probably show up next week, with a box of donuts and some copies of the Bulletin. She’s started bringing them—the ones that would just end up recycled. She’s been spending more time there, I think. Maybe she’s trying to get a job as a journalist.”

Frank nods, half-listening. “She had a date last week. Maybe she had another.”

Curt eyes him. “And what about you, Frank? What are you going to do, now that your dog is graduating?”

“You mean am I going to start dating?”

“I mean,” Curtis says, “you’ve had a purpose for a while. Last few months—you’ve looked better. Having friends, having a job.”

“I don’t have a job, Curt.”

“Training a dog counts.” Curtis’s fingers rap against the phone; Frank hears the light tapping. “You making plans to train another?”

“Don’t think they’d let me.” Frank shrugs. “Karen’s the one who applied for the program; I only got to keep her because I was already involved. Doubt they’d want to give the Punisher a puppy.”

“There’s got to be other programs.” Curt has that intent look on his face; Frank recognizes it from years of serving together. It was how Curt always approached a problem—with methodical calm. And that’s when Frank understands—Curt is afraid that Frank is going to go off the rails without something to keep his mind occupied.

“I’m not some preschooler you’ve got to set up with activities.” Frank exhales hard into the phone. “I’m not gonna start shanking people for fun the moment Tansy goes away.”

“I didn’t think you would,” replies Curtis evenly. “But—Frank. I have to be honest with you. A year ago, I was worried about you. I’ve seen enough people get out and then crumble because they didn’t have the kind of support they needed. And those people weren’t in prison. I don’t want you sliding back into that headspace again.”

“I’m fine, Curt.”

“There’s more to life than ‘fine.’” Curtis frowns at him. “What would make you happy?”

Frank laughs. He can’t help it—the question is ridiculous. “Happy—happy doesn’t mean a goddamn thing.”

Curt looks a little pained at Frank’s response, but he just says, “Think about it. There’s got to be something we can do to make this place a little more bearable.”

Curt’s a good man. The kind of man who thinks Frank deserves happiness—everyone deserves it. But that’s bullshit and they both know it, even if Frank’s the only one willing to say so aloud.

The visit ends with Curt saying he’s going to look into different programs and Frank grunting what might be an affirmative response. Curtis shakes his head. “Wallowing asshole,” he mutters into the phone, which makes Frank laugh again, but this time, it’s more genuine.

Frank flashes him a smile before Curtis leaves the room. Frank rises from his seat, walks from the room. As he’s passing by the CO, the other man reaches out and grabs his arm.

Frank freezes. He doesn’t yank his arm free, no matter how much his instincts scream at him to do so. That isn’t wise, not here.

“Yard,” says the CO, very quietly. He’s a new guard, one with dark hair and the kind of demeanor that says he probably squashed ants for fun when he was a kid.

Frank barely looks at him. “What?”

“Yard,” says the CO. “Now.”

It doesn’t sound like a request. Frank steps away and the CO drops Frank’s arm, releasing the tight grip. Frank doesn’t look back, merely strides through to be searched for a second time that day. He can feel the CO looking at him all the while, even if Frank doesn’t glance over.

When he’s through the search, Frank considers his options. It’s probably Dutton. Dutton wants a word; maybe he’s finally going to collect on Jackson’s death, even if that was months back. Frank could go back to his cell, but that’s where Lucero and Tansy are. He doesn’t want to turn them into targets.

Frank’s fists curl. Maybe this is the outlet he’s been searching for, a way to vent some of his frustration. He straightens his shoulders and turns to the left, down the corridor that leads to the yard.

This time of day, it should be bustling. It’s midday and the weather is sunny and warm. There should be at least twenty men out there, but when Frank pushes open the door, the silence is deafening. The place is empty, too goddamn empty.

Frank’s instincts are screaming at him; it’s an ambush, he knows it’s an ambush.

He steps outside, regardless of the danger. Maybe he welcomes it, just a little bit. It’s fucked up that he misses this kind of thing, but he does.

Then he hears the sound of iron clinking; someone is lifting weights on the other side of the yard. Frank walks forward slowly, carefully.

It’s Fisk.

Frank almost laughs.

Fisk got a CO to summon Frank to the yard. The yard. It is a cornucopia of weapons—of weights and barbells and chains. Fisk is waiting for him, lifting weights without a single bodyguard to spot for him. This man. This man who tried to have Karen killed in a hundred different ways. It seems only fitting that there are a hundred weapons in this room.

Fisk slides the bar back into place and sits up, breathing hard. “Good,” he says, when he sees Frank. “I see you got my message.”

Frank grunts. “You have something you want to say to me?”

Another pause. Fisk seems to need them, to collect his thoughts before saying them. “I wished to… apologize.” He shifts on the bench, putting his hands clearly in view. “I never wanted to make an enemy of you.”

Frank shifts on his feet. This man has been Frank’s enemy for longer than he knows. He turns to leave, because he’s got better things to do than listen to Fisk’s bullshit.

“I wanted to make amends,” says Fisk. “To give you a peace offering, if you’ll take it.”

Frank doesn’t turn around. Doesn’t reply.

“Closure,” says Fisk. “The kind of closure you were never able to find in you war against the gangs.”

That stops Frank in his tracks. What does Fisk know about him? Nothing. He can’t know anything about Frank or his war or—

“There’s a man in here,” says Fisk. “That had a part in the massacre in the park.”

Frank closes his eyes. It would have hurt less if Fisk had just hit him with one of these weights. He has to force himself to breathe, to fucking breathe, because Fisk can’t know anything about this. It has to be a lie; if there was someone in here that knew anything about the park massacre, Frank would have found out. He turns, strides back toward Fisk, making no effort to hide his anger. “The fuck do you know about it?”

“I made an effort to look into your case,” says Fisk calmly. He doesn’t rise, doesn’t make any threatening moves. “After I found out that you’d roomed with one of the lawyers involved in… making sure I ended up here.”

Frank’s lip curls.

“I am many things, Mr. Castle,” says Fisk. “But I am not a liar. And I’m rather good at finding the information I need to stay alive. This man has been heard boasting of his connections to the three gangs that you hunted. He brokered deals for them—including the one in the park. He was there.”

For the first time in two years, the Punisher truly opens his eyes and sniffs the air. Frank’s jaw clenches so hard his teeth ache. It feels like desecrating the dead to even speak about this, dragging them back up to the surface rotten and bloodied, and while he hates this, he also can’t look away. “Who?”

“You understand that all I can give you is—”

“Who?” Frank rasps. Even asking the question hurts; he hates having to ask this man for anything when all he truly desires is to see him dead on the ground. And he does want Fisk dead—he’s willing to admit that. This man is responsible for as much death as those gangs he hunted, and this fight feels just as personal. When he looks at Fisk, all he can see is Karen hunched over, her eyes downcast and face gaunt, wearing his old sweatshirt like she’d hoped it was armor. Fisk did that—even if it wasn’t him, it was his people.

“He’s right here in this prison,” says Fisk, and Frank knows that the other man is enjoying this. He likes having the upper hand, loves power the way some people indulge in wine or drugs. This is Fisk’s high. Knowledge and power.

“I want a name.” Frank takes a step forward, but Fisk doesn’t retreat. This won’t be easy; Frank glances around the yard, finding weapons. He can’t kill Fisk, not right away. Cause the right amount of pain first, get him scared and talking, and—

“Dutton,” Fisk says simply.

It catches Frank off guard. He blinks a few times, trying to refocus. The air feels too thin. Frank has to force himself to breathe steadily because he wants to drag it into his body by the lungful.


Frank doesn’t disbelieve it—not for a moment. Because fuck. It makes sense—Dutton has been running drugs in and out of this prison for years. He’s ruled this place with a brutal efficiency, a business-like demeanor that the truly professional criminals have. He doesn’t bother with gang rivalries, and now Frank knows why. Because he’s brokered for them. He’s a goddamn middleman, a negotiator.

This is probably why Dutton approached Frank in those first few weeks. Why he offered Frank a job while surrounded by half of his bodyguards. Dutton wanted to see if Frank knew, if he would try to kill Dutton. But when Frank declined the job offer and the opportunity to end Dutton, the older man kept his distance. Left Frank to his own devices. He was probably relieved that Frank didn’t seem to connect Dutton to the massacre at the park, didn’t know about his involvement.

But Dutton knew. He told Karen how Frank’s family died—and Frank never questioned it because he didn’t realize. Dutton knew because he was fucking there.

Frank has to work to slow his breathing. He can’t just go roaring off, because here’s something else Frank knows: Fisk is telling him all of this for a reason.

And that reason isn’t too hard to grasp. Dutton has made Fisk’s life here a living hell. And Fisk wants to end that.

“You think I’m a fucking idiot?” says Frank roughly. “You’re telling me this so I’ll go after him.”

Fisk doesn’t even try to deny it. “I admit, I do have a stake in this. But do not pretend this wouldn’t benefit you. You spent months waging a fruitless war on New York. Don’t you think it’s time you reaped some reward?”

“I’m not gonna be your goddamn triggerman.”

“I’ll tell you something else,” Fisk says. “Something I think you’d want to know.”

“You don’t have anything I care—”

“Ms. Page has attracted the attention of those who killed your family.”

Frank remembers the sensation of having an explosion go off in close quarters. The funny thing is, if you’re standing too close to a bomb, they aren’t loud; rather, the world whites out, but for a ringing in the ears. The skin goes numb and hot and sometimes even standing upright is a difficulty. They do far more internal damage than a person can realize—bruises not easily seen, eardrums ruptured, concussions.

Standing in front of Fisk, hearing him utter those words, it feels the same. Like the world has collapsed in on him and he’s reeling. He has to force his face into stillness, to not give anything away. “What?”

“She’s been looking into your case, you know,” says Fisk, almost casually. “For several weeks now.”

Of course she is. Because she wouldn’t just let this go. She wouldn’t let Frank go—not even after all of this time.

Fisk continues, “She’s been seen visiting newspaper archives, digging up police reports, even talking to your former nurse. She’s gotten too close—and people have begun to die. The man who did the autopsies on your family and your former nurse have both been killed in the last twenty-four hours.” He gives Frank an insincere attempt at a smile. “It is only a matter of time until the woman asking the questions finds herself at the wrong end of a gun barrel.”

Fuck. Fuck.

He can’t even call Fisk a liar because he knows Karen—and this is exactly the kind of thing she would do. She would chase the truth into a lion’s den.

“You should speak to this Dutton,” says Fisk. “See what he knows. I believe he was the one who initially put this deal together. It could be the only way to know who killed your family—and who is coming after Ms. Page.”

Frank speaks, his voice a rasp. “And why the fuck should I trust your word on that? You tried to kill her.”

Fisk shrugs. “That is true. I did my best to silence her, lest I end up in a place like this.”

What kind of asshole actually says the word ‘lest,’ in a goddamn sentence? “Yet here you are.”

“Here I am,” agrees Fisk. “Which is why I have little stake in Ms. Page. She played a role in getting me into prison, yes. But now, she has a more valuable role—because she matters more alive. To you.”

“You want Dutton dead,” says Frank. “You want me to do it.”

“Not until you have your answers, but yes,” says Fisk. “I will ensure your safe passage into cell block A.”

“I’m not going to kill him for you.”

“Not even to find out exactly what happened to your family?” asks Fisk. “Not even to save Ms. Page’s life?”

If this were a game of poker, that would be the winning hand. Frank knows it—and Fisk knows it, too.

It’s a one-way trip. Going after Dutton would be one thing, but doing so on the word and trust of a man like Fisk is something else entirely. It isn’t a question of if Fisk will betray him, but when.

Even so, he’s going to do it.

He knows he’s going to do it.

It doesn’t matter how foolish or dangerous this mission is—Frank could no more turn away from it than he could break free of the earth’s gravity. This is what pulls him, as much as he hates to admit it. Vengeance pulled him back from the brink of death and its hold is no less strong. He can taste it on the back of his teeth when he swallows, a bitter metallic tang that reminds him of blood.

Frank doesn’t remember much of the walk back to his cell. Lucero is waiting for him, Tansy trying to sit on his lap like she’s still a puppy again. One look at Frank and Lucero blanches. “What’s up?”

Frank doesn’t reply, not at first. He sets a shiv down on his bed and Lucero blinks down at it.

“The fuck, man?” he says, his voice quieter.

“Fisk gave it to me,” Frank says, and then he tells Lucero the essentials. Just enough so that the kid will know what’s going on. With every word, Lucero looks more and more alarmed.

“Let me get this straight,” says Lucero. “You’re gonna go into cell block A and interrogate Dutton? With nothing but a shiv? That’s insane.”

“Fisks’s got a CO paid off.” Frank can’t sit down; his legs won’t cooperate. He paces back and forth along the length of the small cell. “They’ll get me there and back.”

“You won’t be coming back,” Lucero says, a little desperately. “This is a suicide mission.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“So you’re just gonna roll over and let him have this? Walk into some trap and let Dutton kill you?” Lucero rises to his feet. “Don’t be stupid.”

Frank turns to face Lucero. Lucero’s taller than he is—but he’s gangly. A kid, in the ways that truly count. And Frank has done his best to protect him in all of this, to keep him safe and out of trouble. Which has meant keeping him away from the worst of the Punisher. But now, Frank allows some of that to creep back into his posture, his expression.

Lucero flinches.

“I’ve killed better men than Dutton’s thugs,” Frank says quietly. There’s no bravado to his words, because they’re just facts. “I know Fisk’s going to betray me. I know it. But if what he’s saying is true—if Dutton was in on the shooting that killed my family—then I’m doing this.”

Lucero rubs at the back of his head with both hands, seeming to search for another argument. “Don’t do this. It’s not gonna change what happened.”

“I don’t care—”

“If you really love Karen, you wouldn’t do this,” says Lucero. “She deserves better than you going off and getting yourself killed.”

Frank looks at him sharply, all of the words vanishing from his mouth. Frank has never said those words aloud, never told anyone.

Lucero crosses his arms. “I’m not stupid. I know I act that way sometimes, but I’m not. And you two were more married than most married couples. Who’d you think you were fooling, man?”

Frank gazes at the younger man, at a loss for words. He thought his feelings for Karen were tamped down far enough that no one could see them; hell, he didn’t even realize for months.

“You ever talk to her about it?” Frank asks quietly. Because if Karen knew, if she even suspected—fuck. Just… fuck.

“Never,” says Lucero evenly. “It was obvious she was fine with it—I mean, if you’d been abusing her, I’d have done something. Gotten killed trying to stop it, probably.”

Of all the people in prison, Frank thought Lucero was the only one who understood there was nothing going on between himself and Karen. It turns out that no, Lucero did think they’d been sleeping together… but not in the way everyone else thought. Where the other inmates saw the Punisher and his bedwarmer, Lucero saw a consensual relationship.

“We never,” Frank begins to say, then course-corrects. “It was never like that. Karen never—”

Lucero gives him a pitying look. “I saw how she looked at you, man. Same way my older sister looks at her husband.”

It isn’t true. It can’t be true.

“Fisk said someone’s hunting her,” Frank says quietly. “That people connected to my case have been killed off in the last twenty-four hours. I can’t stand by and let something happen. If Dutton knows something, I’ll find out and pass that info along to her. So she can keep herself safe.”

“He’s going to kill you,” Lucero replies, just as quietly. “I know you’re good. But Dutton is… he rules this place. You declare war on him, and this is all over. You keeping the dog, those cozy visits with Karen, any hope of getting out of here. Even if you survive, you’re going into solitary. Forever.”

“I’m never getting out of here,” says Frank. “I knew that. Always did. But you—you will. And you’re going to stay out of this. Keep your head down, pretend you don’t know nothing about this.” He nods to Tansy. She’s sitting in the corner, eyes concerned. When Frank looks at her, she gives one hopeful wag of her tail. “You take Tansy,” says Frank. “You keep her safe, all right? I’ve done what I can to teach you, but it’s on you now. I’ll find out what Dutton knows, and I’ll find a way to get the information back to you. You tell Karen, okay?” His voice shifts, takes on a tone he only ever used with those under his command. “You call her cell phone and tell her.”

Lucero straightens his spine. Looks Frank right in the eye and says, “Yes, sir.”

He would have been a good soldier, if he’d been given the chance.

Frank takes him by the shoulders. Squeezes. It’s the only goodbye he can muster.

He kneels before Tansy. The dog licks his hands as he cradles her face, rubs her velvet-soft cheek with his thumb. “You be a good girl, Tans,” he tells her softly. She wags her tail.

Frank forces himself to stand. Then he turns on his heel and walks from the cell. He takes a freshly folded towel and the shiv with him. It’ll look like he’s just carrying laundry.

There’s a guard waiting for him at the end of his unit. The CO nods at Frank, then accompanies him down the hallway. Through another locked door, then down a corridor. He uses his key to open the right cell block, then he steps aside.

“Seven minutes,” he says simply.

It’ll be more than enough time.

Frank steps inside.

The cell door clicks shut behind him with a terrible finality.

The next time Fisk comes to see him, Frank is in solitary.

The guards made him shower off the evidence of the fight; his jumpsuit stained red and brown as the blood dried. He’s dressed in his undershirt and loose trousers, and his forearm was hastily bandaged.

None of that matters.

Because Frank got what he wanted. What he’s always wanted.


The Blacksmith. A drug deal gone wrong because it was a sting. Dutton at the heart of it all.

Part of Frank seethes that it took so long to get the truth of it all. Dutton was just another cell block away, so close the entire time Frank was incarcerated. And yet Frank never knew, never considered—but then again, why would he? Dutton is a grade-a asshole, but he never gave any hint that he knew about the carousel massacre. He probably swore his people to silence, knowing what Frank would do if he found out.

And now—now more people are dying.

The medical examiner that signed off on Maria and the kids’ death certificates and Frank’s old nurse—they’re both dead.

The Blacksmith is cleaning house. Anyone that knows anything about the carousel shooting is a target.

And Fisk was right—it’s probably only a matter of time until the Blacksmith gets to Karen.

Frank sits in solitary, blood staining the edges of his underclothes and nails, waiting in silence. He has to get word to Karen. He isn’t sure how, but he will.

He has to.

Fisk comes by to gloat, because of course he fucking does. He revels in his own power—and Frank doesn’t give a shit. If Fisk is going to end him, then he better fucking end it.

But that’s when Fisk delivers the one thing Frank never thought he could.

“I own this prison now,” Fisk says, calm and so damned smug. “And let’s just say… I believe the two of us in here would be rather suffocating.”

The chains fall away before Frank can truly understand what Fisk means.

He’s letting Frank out. Giving him a way out.

Not because Fisk gives a shit about Frank—but because Fisk knows that Frank will kill him if he remains here. And out there, Frank might go after Fisk’s enemies. It’s a deal with the devil, one of those dances in the moonlight that Frank should really refuse. But he cannot. Not when the cost is so high.

It’s only when Fisk’s blood is on Frank’s knuckles, when he’s spitting his own blood out from between his gums, that he tells Fisk the truth of the matter.

That the next time Frank meets him, it’s going to end with one of them dead.

“I’m counting on it,” Fisk says easily.

Frank walks by, gaze ahead, then he goes still. “One last thing,” he rasps. “You want me out of here, you gotta do one other thing for me.”

Breaking out of prison is surprisingly easy when one has power and money.

Fisk arranges it so Frank is cleaned up and given the same riot gear as the other COs—the helmet keeps his face hidden, the armor as good as disguise as any. Most of the COs are on Fisk’s payroll now, and those that aren’t won’t recognize Frank easily.

And so this is how the Punisher escapes prison. He just walks out.

With every step, the gear feels lighter. He breathes—one breath, after another, sucking in lungfuls of cool, unfiltered air. It tastes of the city, of fumes and pavement and a chance of rain, and it tastes like home. Frank’s strides lengthen until he’s moving at a fast clip, leaving the prison behind.

The city closes in around him, like it’s welcoming him home.

New York hasn’t changed.

It’s still a jumble of artificial lights and dark corners, of concrete flats and greenery growing through the cracks, of fortune and the fallen, of chaos and predictable schedules.

It’s home, as much as any place can be.

Frank moves through it like a ghost. He wears stolen clothes: dark jeans and a heavy black coat, a hood drawn up to cover some of the bruises. He keeps to the shadows, because he looks like a bruised nightmare. Of the riot gear, all he keeps is the baton. It fits into his back pocket and it’s better than nothing. 

It all feels so familiar. His body is still attuned to the hunt, every sense awake. It feels like pulling on a familiar old garment, one he has almost missed. That’s probably fucked up, but it’s true.

He stands in an alleyway, brick wall to his back. He’s watching a certain window—dark as the rest of the night. He’s been watching it for hours, since he returned to the streets.

It’s Karen’s address. He knows because she gave it to him back when she first moved in. In case you get bored with phone calls and want to write, she told him, smiling.

He never did write to her. Letters weren’t really his thing. But he has the address memorized.

It’s a shithole apartment in a bad part of Hell’s Kitchen. She should have just stayed at his place. At least then he could have waited in the yard.

Time passes painfully slow. Karen should be home by now—it’s well after work hours.

Something could have happened. The Blacksmith could have gotten to her.

He swallows hard. If she doesn’t come home within the hour, he’ll risk calling her. If his absence has been noticed at the prison, the cops may be tracking her phone calls. She’s a known associate of his, after all. But he’ll still risk it. If she doesn’t—

A cop car rolls up to the curb. Frank stiffens, drawing back into the shadow of the dumpster. It smells like rust and rotting garbage.

Two cops emerge from the car. One of them pulls open the back door and—

Karen steps out. She’s wearing a long coat and her hair is unbound, glimmering in the streetlight overhead. Frank watches as the cops walk her inside.

A police escort.

Maybe they’ve figured it out—that the Blacksmith is coming for everyone connected to Frank. That’s good. But even so, he can’t depend on them.

He hasn’t been idle for these last few hours; he found an unlocked fire escape on the second floor and now he uses it to slip into the apartment building. There are footsteps nearby, the sound of heavy footfalls. A rumble of male voices, and then a lighter female one. Karen, thanking the two officers for bringing her home. Frank peer around the hallway and sees the two men just as they’re leaving the apartment, walking toward the elevator. Frank moves swiftly, as silent as a shadow, striding toward the right door.

He touches the doorknob, twists it. It rattles a little in his palm.

It’s locked. Of course it’s locked, because—

The door swings open and Frank finds himself staring down the barrel of a gun.

Karen stands there, pistol at the ready. Her face is hard and pale, dried blood flecking the corner of one eye.

“Shh, shh, shh.” He holds up both hands, palms out. “Hey, it’s me.” Every word soft, soothing. He can see the fear in her, even as her eyes settle on his face.

“Frank?” she says and lowers the gun. It’s his gun, he realizes. The one he kept in his safe at the house; she held onto it. Good for her.

“Sorry, Karen.” His arms fall back to his sides. “Didn’t mean to scare you. Would’ve called first, but…”

“Inside,” she says, stepping back. He does so, and she shuts the door behind him and snaps the deadbolt into place. She sets the gun carefully on a dresser, and he gets a good look at her place. It’s tiny, a studio barely worthy of the name. He turns to look at her and—

And then she is across the room and her arms are tight around his neck. His breath catches and for a moment, he can’t bring himself to say a word. His hands slide up her back, settling between her shoulder blades. It’s been months since he touched her, since that last farewell.

She’s all right.

She’s safe.

She pulls back, and her gaze flicks over his bruised face. He can see worry behind her eyes. “What—I heard there was some kind of break-out at the prison but there weren’t any details—”

He isn’t listening. There’s blood on her sweater, on her skin. “What happened?” he says. Her sweater is soft, a light yellow—and there’s crimson streaked across one of her sleeves.

She shivers. “There was a shooting. At the DA’s office. She brought me in—wanted to know what I’d found out about you. But while I was there…” She bites down on her lip, hard enough that it looks as if the skin might break. “Someone shot through the windows. Just… demolished the place. I managed to get to cover but Reyes…”

He can see what happened—it’s written across her face. “What about those lawyer friends of yours?”

“They were with me,” she says. “One of them was shot in the shoulder. The other is fine.” Her hand comes up, hovers over his bruised cheek. “How did you get out? I mean—”

He holds up a hand, gesturing for silence.

She goes quiet at once.

He thought he heard something—the faintest footsteps. But he must have imagined it, he must have—

Then he hears the click of a gun.

It feels as if the world slows, goes molasses-thick. All he can see are the faces of his family, torn open and raw flesh and blood and everything that holds a person together just torn apart and—

He slams into her before he even realizes what he’s doing. Presses her into the ground, shielding her as best he can. It’s a fruitless gesture; he isn’t armored up and a single round from any decent-sized rifle will tear right through him and into her. But at least she won’t die alone.

He feels one of the bullets pass over him, so close that the air is hot with it. The rounds slam into the drywall and pictures, sending wood and glass scattering across the floor.

Karen gasps, an involuntary cry of fear on her lips. Her hand clamps down on his arm, holding on for dear life. His fingers curl around her head, tangled up in the softness of her hair. His cheek is against her forehead, and her breath saws out against his jaw, hot and panicked. He presses her harder against the floor, trying to keep her as low as he can.

The moments stretch out, punctuated by gunfire and his own ragged breathing. It feels like it lasts an hour, but in retrospect, it’s probably only fifteen seconds or so.

When the bullets stop, he remains in place for a few moments, waiting. The last thing he wants is to rise just as another attacker opens fire.

Something crashes to the floor—a picture or a mirror.

“Frank?” Karen whispers. She is shaking beneath him. Scared—but alive. That’s all that matters.

It was close. So fucking close. If he hadn’t been here… he doesn’t want to think about it.

Frank puts one forearm against the floor, pushing himself up a few inches. His weight can’t be comfortable against her.

“We need to get out of here,” he says. The piercing cry of a baby comes from somewhere in the building and distant sirens are beginning to wail. “Come on. Stay low, Karen. Stay low.”

She does, bending nearly double as she grabs her fallen purse and they leave her apartment behind. He’s barely aware of where they’re headed—all of his senses are on their surroundings. Karen leads the way, rushing to a parking lot out back. She digs into her purse for keys, and then he finds himself in the back seat of a car. “There’s a blanket back there. Lay down and pull it over you,” she says shakily. “If—if any traffic cameras see you…”

He understands. And there isn’t time to argue or find a better solution. Frank curls onto his side. The blanket is a heavy woolen one and Frank pulls it over himself, making sure he’s hidden from sight.

Karen drives away, and for the next hour or so, Frank listens to the sound of her breaths and the rumble of the car engine.

She drives them to a hotel. It isn’t a sketchy one—rather, she picks a mid-range place that looks as if it caters to traveling businessmen. There’s a diner across the parking lot, a movie theater and pharmacy on the other end of the street. They need a place to lie low for a while, at least until Frank can figure out what to do next. Karen pays up front, then meets him outside. She has a plastic key card, and they let themselves into one of the farther rooms. It smells of clean sheets and air freshener. Karen switches on a light, sets her purse on a coffee table and stands there for a few moments. With a sigh, she shrugs out of her coat and drapes it across the back of a chair before running her hands through her hair.

Frank stands a few feet away, his arms at his sides.

They’re out of prison. Both of them. The freedom is almost bewildering.

Karen goes to the hotel coffee maker, pouring a cup of water into the back. The burble and hiss of the warming water fills the small room. Frank leaves her to it; he walks to the windows, gazing out through the filmy gauze. There are sniping positions on the opposite building, if one were so inclined. He reaches for the blackout curtains and drags them across, flicking on the lamp. Better to use artificial light than to make themselves an easy target.

When he looks back into the room, Karen has a cup of instant coffee held against her lips. She drinks a gulp, then sets the foam cup on a table.

“I—I need a shower,” Karen says abruptly. “I’ve still got Foggy’s blood on me.”

He nods. “I’ll keep watch.”

There’ll be things they have to discuss soon, but right now he won’t begrudge her a bit of normality. Karen nods in thanks and vanishes into the bathroom. The light flickers on and then he listens to the thrum of the shower.

Frank goes to the window again, peering through a crack in the blackout curtains. Karen said she took a roundabout route here, doubling back and taking turns at random. Odds are they weren’t followed, but he won’t take anything for granted.

About twenty minutes later, Karen emerges from the bathroom. Her hair is damp and she’s wearing the same clothes as before—only without the coat. Her feet are bare, her legs pale under the dark skirt. She picks up her forgotten cup of coffee and throws back the last of it in one gulp.

“Hey,” he says. She glances over her shoulder; he can only see part of her expression. “You okay?”

She lets out a hoarse laugh. “No, Frank. I’m—I’m really not.” She turns, facing him. “I nearly got killed twice today. I watched one of my friends get shot. You almost were—” She falters, takes a breath, and continues on. “Someone connected to your case wants everyone around it dead.”

“I know.” Frank steps closer. “Why were you even looking into it?”

She blinks. “Into what? Your case?”


“I wasn’t going to just leave you in there,” she says, like he’s the one being an idiot. Anger flickers deep beneath his breastbone.

“I’m guilty, Karen.” The words are said low but sharp. “I killed those men I was put away for. I killed more.”

“That doesn’t change anything,” she says. “Frank. They were going to kill you in there. If I could find a way to get you into protective custody or lessen your sentence, I sure as hell wasn’t going to just stand back and do nothing. And I found stuff, Frank. The way your family died—it could have been stopped.”

“It was a sting,” he replies. “Yeah—I found out. The man who was brokering the deal between the three gangs was Dutton.”

Her jaw drops. “Dutton? He—he knew all this time what happened? Shit.” She paces back and forth, eyes darting around the room. “I should’ve guessed. He was the one who told me your family was gone. I thought it was just because he was well-connected, but—”

Frank nods. “Yeah. Turns out he was trying to arrange a deal with someone called the Blacksmith. But the Blacksmith didn’t show and Dutton realized it was a set-up.”

“The DA arranged the sting,” says Karen. “Her name was Reyes, and she was the driving force behind it—and she gave the go-ahead, even after she knew there were civilians in the park. She thought it’d look more normal. When people were gunned down, she knew she’d fucked it up, and she wanted to bury the evidence of her mistake. It’s why there was a DNR put on you in the hospital, why your family’s records were put down as a random shooting in a car. She wanted to hide it.”

“And someone shot her for it,” says Frank. “Someone tried to shoot you for it.”

“The Blacksmith?” says Karen. “Maybe he had someone in Reyes’ office. It would explain why he never showed, why he wanted her dead. If he thought maybe she would pardon you…”

“Why would the Blacksmith want me dead?” says Frank.

“Maybe you saw something in the park?” She presses a hand to her mouth, thoughtful. “Maybe he was there, but disguised?”

“The memories—they aren’t clear.” It pains him to admit it. “Not sure I could ID anyone from the park. The shit I remember… it’s nothing useful.”

“He doesn’t know that,” says Karen. “And all of this seems to lead back to the carousel massacre. Something happened—I don’t know what. Everything I’ve dug up… it hasn’t been conclusive.”

He looks at her. She’s been researching this for months, clearly. She knows almost as much about that day as he does—maybe more. And while part of him wants to hash all of this out with her, another part wants her far, far away from this. From the blood and the shells and the memories. He never wanted Karen anywhere near this kind of danger, and the fact she was doing this for him—

“You should’ve stayed out of this,” he says.

Anger flashes across her face. “And let you rot in prison?” she retorts.

“Yes!” The word bursts out of him. He turns to face her, arms at his sides. He can feel his trigger finger twitching, and he presses it against his palm.

If he had been just two minutes later, if something had delayed him or prevented him from coming to her apartment—

He remembers the drywall falling to the floor in chunks, the smell of burning, the sight of—

Meat and blood and bone and—

He closes his eyes against the memories.

That could have been Karen. All too easily. He could have walked into that apartment and found her dead on the floor. The thought makes it hard to breathe, to think. He wants to pace, to leave behind those thoughts with action, but he can’t do anything. Not in this small hotel room.

Finally, he manages to speak. “Better me rotting in prison than you getting yourself killed.”

Karen crosses her arms. She looks like she did back in prison, when she was facing down those bikers—angry and lovely, all at once. “I wanted to—”

“You can’t keep doing this,” he says. “First Fisk and now this—you’re painting a target on yourself.” He steps closer, until he can see the flecks in her blue eyes, until he can feel the warmth of her shower-damp skin. “Do you want to die, Karen? Is that it?”

“No,” she says hotly. “I wanted you to live.”

He opens his mouth to argue, but she finds another way to silence him.

She kisses him.

He has her backed against a wall before he even realizes what’s happening. One hand at her waist, the other in her hair. This—this is the line he hasn’t crossed, wouldn’t let himself cross. She kisses like she’s afraid of losing him, like she is trying to capture every bit of sensation in a span of moments, and he gets it. He has slept beside her for months, watched her laugh and cry and bleed, heard her darkest secrets uttered in the early morning hours, shared his own with her, and the fear is still too sharp, too close to the surface. He smells like cordite and she smells of cheap motel coffee, and somehow it’s still right.

Her hands are clutched in his shirt, pulling him closer and her mouth is a little chapped—lips bitten out of nerves. He remembers how she always did that. He has loved her for so long that he’s half-afraid he’ll wake up, find himself on that bunk in his cell.

She steps out of her shoes and it’s that little action that makes him draw back.

Her eyes meet his and they are so blue it takes his breath away. He touches the underside of her jaw, feels her pulse beating hard against his fingers.

“You sure?” he asks.

“Frank,” she says. She kisses the corner of his mouth, the edge of his bruised cheek. “Every single time I touched since I got out of prison, I thought about you.”

He feels a little dizzy. Maybe because of the surprise or because most of the blood in his body just surged southward. The thought of herself on a bed, legs parted and fingers sliding up into herself—fuck. Fuck.

He kisses her again because he can’t not touch her.

Her hands are on his belt and he feels it loosen and slide away. The thud of the buckle hitting the hard carpet snaps him back to this moment and he touches the hem of her shirt. She raises her arms in acquiescence and he tugs it upward—only for it to get snagged on her ponytail. He has to gently pull it off of her and she’s laughing as it comes off, her hair a mess. She pulls out the ponytail and he touches a few stray golden strands. He presses a kiss to the arch of her shoulder, then moves up her neck. Her hands are on the buttons of his shirt, prying them open, and then her fingers are against his bare skin and he feels slightly drunk on all of the contact. Her hands skim up across his chest, over his scars. God, that feels good.

His mouth moves down again, passing over her bra strap and down her shoulder. She makes a frustrated noise, then twists one arm behind herself and—and the bra comes free. He has seen her naked countless times before, but nothing like this. That was quick and his attention was always on his surroundings, on keeping her safe. Now he can take his time and he can touch, and he is going to enjoy both. Her nipples are flushed and hard, and then he’s kissing down her collarbone and lower, until he covers the peak of one breast with his mouth. She cries out, her hand against the back of his head.

His hand cups the warm dampness between her thighs—the fabric of her panties sticks a little to his fingers as he slides them up beneath the hem. He finds his way by touch alone, his mouth still teasing her nipple, his fingers gliding over her clit. She makes a noise that is all desire, her fingers tight in his hair. His fingers delve lower, finding her entrance. She’s sopping here, and his cock twitches in his pants at the thought that she’s this aroused by him. He takes a little bit of the slickness and draws it up to her clit, using it to ease his way as he frames his fingers around the hard nub and begins to stroke. She whimpers, thighs trembling. “Frank,” she breathes.

He kisses her again, and this time, it’s all heat and hunger: her tongue in his mouth, the slide of his slick fingers against her clitoris, the press of her bare breasts against his chest. She makes a grumbling sound and begins unbuttoning his pants, trying to tug the garment down without breaking the kiss.

He’s the one to pull back, because as good as it is to kiss her, he wants more. He lowers himself to his knees before her. Her skirt is up around her waist, her panties shoved to one side. He takes a moment to unzip the skirt and tug it down over her bare, lovely legs. Her panties follow, and then she’s utterly naked before him. She looks like every fantasy he’s concocted in those lonely moments, back in the cell when all he had of her were memories and desire. He runs his knuckles softly across her hip, down one thigh. A shiver runs through her—cold or nerves, he can’t tell.

He kisses the inside of her thigh. He can smell the arousal coming off of her and he’s so hard he aches with it—but first, he has other priorities. He’s wanted to do this for far too long.

He takes one of her legs, draping it over his shoulder. One hand on her waist to steady her, and then he presses an open-mouthed kiss to the soft hair just above her clit. Another shiver goes through her, but this time there’s no mistaking it for anything but want.

He moves his mouth lower and without any more waiting, licks a line from entrance to clit. The noise she makes is a broken little moan and her head thunks against the wall. Her fingers dig into his shoulder. She tastes like heat and sunlight and he knows he’s going to enjoy this. He takes things slow—the flat of his tongue circling around her clit without truly touching it. Her thigh is taut and smooth beneath his hand, tensing up every time he nears her clit. Part of him wants to touch her, to slide a finger into the slick heat of her, but his nails are rough and he won’t risk hurting her.

“Frank.” He can’t remember the last time anyone said his name with such longing.

He seals his mouth around her clit. She cries out, nails raking against his scalp as he laps at the hard nub.

Karen takes all of it with gasps and curses, her stomach quivering beneath his hand. He can feel her straining toward him, edging towards orgasm, and he urges her on. He sucks her clit into his mouth, trying to keep a steady rhythm. He wants to feel her shatter, to see her in that moment of release. She is moaning steadily now.

When she does come, it’s with a soft gasp. Her thighs shake and for a moment it seems like they might just give out on her. His grip tightens, but he doesn’t relent, tongue stroking. It’s only when she gives another full body shudder and clutches at his head that he pulls back. Her eyes are bright, lips bitten red and cheeks flushed.

Her thumb strokes his cheek.

“How the hell,” she says, “do you still have your pants on?”

He grins, rising to his feet. His knees ache a little, but it was worth it. She makes quick work of his jeans, then he steps free of them. “Oh my god, you’re going commando,” she says, laughing.

“I was on the run,” he says, curling a hand around her waist. “No time.”

Her hand slides down his stomach, palm warm and soft against his hard cock. He inhales sharply as she wraps her fingers around him. “I’m not complaining,” she says. Her touch is light, but it’s still so good that all of his thoughts seem to have gone silent. She strokes a few times and his hips involuntarily jerk, trying to thrust into her hand. She kisses his chest.

“Bed,” she says. As if he could refuse her.

The bed is a queen-sized one, and it looks enormous compared to what they are used to. Karen pushes Frank down upon it, and he goes willingly, kissing what parts of her he can reach—wrist, arm, shoulder, then up to her neck. She settles atop him, and then she’s kissing him again. His hands slide up her back, pulling her closer. She’s practically in his lap, his back to the headboard, so tangled up in one another that he can’t tell where he ends and she begins.

Then her hand is between them, and she is taking hold of his cock, angling it against her. He has barely a moment to breathe, “Karen.”

She sinks down on him, thighs shaking a little. He’s still sitting up, one hand splayed across the width of her back and the other at her cheek. He tries to concentrate on the softness of her skin, the way her spine flexes as she rolls her hips—if he can think about that, he won’t think about the fact he’s inside of her. He can’t think about how good it feels to sink into her, or the small noises she makes when she begins moving. He can’t think about it too much, because he’s already on that knife’s edge, straddling the thin line between pleasure and orgasm. And he doesn’t want to come yet, not yet. She is riding him, making no effort to conceal her pleasure in the act, and he doesn’t know where to look—at her face, taut with pleasure, or her soft breasts or to the place between her thighs where he can see his cock sliding in and out of her. He moves with her, driving upward when she descends. Her forehead touches his, lips not quite touching.

He can barely think; all of his thoughts are a litany of ‘yes’ and ‘Karen’ and ‘so good.’ It’s better than any fantasy because there are small details he never could have concocted: the way her voice frays when she says his name, the smell of the hotel shampoo, the bite of nails when she grips his shoulder for balance. It’s real—she’s real and here and with him, and it’s too damned good.

“Frank,” she gasps. “Yes—oh.”

He watches her come a second time, her legs and stomach shaking as the orgasm rolls through her. She squeezes down on his cock and it’s the kind of blissful torment that he would endure forever if he could just stay in this moment, live in it, never leave this bed or her again. She all but collapses against him, breathing hard, sweaty and satisfied and so gorgeous. She kisses him, and for a moment they stay like that—just kissing. “My thighs are about to give out,” she says, breathless. “Could you…?”

“However you want me,” he replies hoarsely, and he knows he means more than just in this moment and this bed.

She smiles, and then pulls off of him, rolling onto her back. He settles between her thighs, taking a moment to push some of the hair off of her sweaty forehead. She takes his hand, kissing the palm.

He loves her—and while he doesn’t say the words, tries to convey them as best he can. He reaches down, draping one of her legs across his waist before easing into her a second time. She moans softly and the sound is one he never wants to forget. Sinking into her again and again feels indescribably good. He wishes he could draw this out, but he can feel himself beginning to tighten up. “Karen,” he gasps.

“Yes.” She kisses his jaw, arms tight around him. “Frank—fuck.”

He comes hard, hips flexing as instinct takes over and sinks in deep, again and again. She gasps, her legs still around his waist.

For a few moments, it’s all he can do to breathe. He can feel the rise and fall of Karen’s chest against his, the clasp of her fingers around the back of his neck. He wishes he could stay like this forever—nestled in this moment of utter quiet. But his legs are beginning to tremble with exertion. Careful, he pulls free of her. Her hair is sticking to her forehead and he brushes it away, kissing her temple. She rolls over so that she’s nestled against him, her cheek to his chest. It feels natural to have her so close.

For a few minutes, neither breaks the silence. Frank isn’t sure he can speak; for the first time in years, the world feels quiet and peaceful. He doesn’t want to shatter that. Karen strokes his chest with her fingertips, her thumb moving back and forth just beneath his collarbone. That touch feels almost better than the sex—it’s an affectionate little caress, one he didn’t realize he craved until now. 

He touches her, too. His hand moves across her back, over lean muscle and a few scattered moles. She’s alive and real and beside him, and part of him still can’t believe it. 

Finally, he shifts on the bed, a smile in his voice when he speaks. “So. You thought about me, huh?”

“God.” She laughs into his chest. “I shouldn’t have told you that. It’s embarrassing.”

“Why’s it embarrassing?” He kisses the delicate crease of her ear.

“Because—I don’t know. It felt weird to fantasize about you like that,” she says. “You were always so kind—and it felt somehow like I was a perv, thinking about you while I masturbated.”

“You felt like a perv?” he says, with a rueful shake of his head. “The day you wore that dress—that dark one. Ended up jerking off in my cell once all the lights were out because I couldn’t stop thinking about how good you looked.”

“Seriously?” she says, seemingly delighted.

“You have any idea how many times I woke up hard as a rock because I dreamed about doing what we just did?”

She looks up. “I remember that one morning. It was… a memory I used a lot in my fantasies.”

“You’re kidding.” His dick is making a valiant effort to reenact that morning, but he’s not that young anymore. “You were—giggly.”

“Of course I was,” she says, flushing a little. “You were adorably embarrassed about the whole thing. I thought you were trying to be a gentleman. And I didn’t want you knowing I was attracted to you, in case it made things weird.”

He blinks. “You were? Back then?”

She lets out a breath that is almost a laugh. “Frank. You cannot be that surprised."

“Sorry, I was under the impression that ‘bruised up mass murderer’ wasn’t an attractive trait.”  

She touches one of the bruises on his face. She does it so lightly he almost can’t feel the brush of her thumb across his cheek. “You were always more than that. From the first moment I met you."

“The first time you met me,” he says, “you were terrified of me."

She smiles. “Okay, true. Only because I thought you were pull those guys off of me so you could have me. But after that, when you handed me that screwed up shiv and told me to protect myself, I knew you were different.” She exhales. “You were the first person in months who treated me like... well, a person."

“That’s not exactly a high bar,” he says dryly.

She shakes her head, laughing a little as her hands tighten around him. “Let’s put it this way, Frank. By the time I awoke with your hard dick against my ass, I trusted you enough that it wasn’t unwelcome.” 

He strokes the bare line of her shoulders, across her collarbone, then back again. “I was watching you play with Tansy.”

“What?” She tilts her head, creasing the pillow with her cheek.

“When it first hit me,” he says. “There was that day you were trying to teach Tansy to sit and I glanced over and realized I was so in love with you that it hurt.” He says the words without even really thinking about them. Because they’re true. It’s only when Karen tenses that he understands the enormity of that statement. 

She draws in a sharp breath. “Frank. You never said.”

“Of course I didn’t.” He meets her eyes. “If anything happened in there—it wouldn’t have been right. Not like that. Not when you were scared out of your mind half the time. Not when…” He trails off, but he can tell she understands.

“Yeah,” she says, even more quietly. “And that’s why I trust you. Because you’re the most honorable man I’ve ever met.” 

As good as it feels to hear those words, he has to remind her that things aren’t so cut and dried. “Karen. I’m still a killer,” he says quietly. “On the run. Karen, you—”

“Frank.” Her fingers find the edge of his jaw, skimming lightly over one of his bruises. “Listen. Just—listen. You know I went on a date about a few weeks ago.”

He remembers—he won’t ever be able to forget that day when she showed up wearing eyeliner and wearing a navy blue dress. It had felt like being sucker punched; he’d forced a smile and tried to be happy for her. He was happy for her, that she found a social life. But that night he’d been so irritated and short-tempered that even Tansy sat across the cell and glared at him.

She continues, “I thought that maybe—maybe what I felt for you was because of our circumstances. Because we’d been through hell together, that created a bond. Matt asked me out and I said yes.”

“Your lawyer,” says Frank. “And your boss. Isn’t that kinda… a conflict of interest on his part?” He’s dredging through his memory for everything she ever said about Murdock.

She smiles, but there’s a bit of sadness to it. “He was nice. I thought maybe if I could date him, I could stop… hurting. Every time I thought about you, it was like digging my fingers into an old injury.”

He understands; he felt the same.

“So I went on a date with him,” she says, “We went out to this fancy restaurant that neither of us liked and he kissed me goodnight and it was… fine. I thought, maybe I could do this. And then I had to go to his apartment to talk to him about a case and I found him with a woman in his bed. Which I mean—we hadn’t started dating exclusively or anything like that, but the way he reacted… it was all guilt. It was a betrayal and he knew it. He’d been having some illicit affair while trying to date me.”

Frank makes a noise at the back of his throat that is all disgust. He has his flaws, he knows. Sometimes he feels as if he’s made of nothing but flaws. He strokes the soft skin of her inner arm, marveling at the fact he can touch her. He spent so much time with a bulletproof barrier between them; he cannot imagine how anyone would have thrown this away. Thrown her away.

“He’s a goddamn idiot,” says Frank.

She kisses his shoulder. “I wasn’t angry. I mean—yes, I was. I was angry he’d lied to me. He’d been flaking out on a trial of ours and it looked like that might have been why. I was angry because we were supposed to be friends. But in that moment, all I could think was—he was supposed to be normal. I was supposed to want normal. Matt checked all of the usual boxes: decent job, polite, kind. But all I could think was, ‘Frank would never do this.’”

“Damn right he wouldn’t,” says Frank. 

Karen lets out a small laugh. “And that’s when I really got it. It wasn’t being thrown together in prison that made me fall for you—it was you. The person who carved out a place in the middle of hell so I could be safe, who talked so I didn’t have to hear people screaming in the dark, who made sure I had enough to eat and books to read and blankets to keep me warm. You—you think anyone would have done that, I know, but you’re wrong.” She cups his cheek, careful of his bruises. “I don’t want to be with anyone else.” Her brow brushes his, and he feels her breath against his mouth. “I love you, okay?”

This isn’t like it was with Maria; that relationship was like being hit by a car—one glance and he was hers. This—this was slower, a gradual drag beneath a river. He could drown in her, and part of him would be glad to die that way. He kisses her and it’s slow and warm and perfect. “Okay,” he says softly.

It feels so normal to roll onto his side, to pull her close. They slept like this for months, but now he feels free to kiss the back of her neck and she takes his hand, weaving their fingers together. She falls asleep first; he listens to her breathing go soft, feels her back rise and fall against his chest. As his body settles into sleep, a few thoughts become crystal clear. These people—the Blacksmith, Dutton, the DA—they all took his family from him. Now all but one of them is dead, and the last seems to be trying to wipe out those with any knowledge of the crime.

He isn’t going to lose Karen to this.

He won’t.

Chapter Text

When Karen awakens, Frank is still asleep beside her.

His arm is around her waist, his breaths soft against her neck. She gently slips out from beneath that arm, trying not to wake him. Frank’s hair is adorably mussed and his mouth is open, a soft snore rattling through his nose. He looks relaxed in a way she cannot ever remember seeing before, and she isn’t sure if that can be attributed to his freedom or last night’s activities. She kisses his shoulder softly before rising from the bed. She needs to use the bathroom and—and then they need to figure this out.

She uses the toilet, and the slight soreness reminds her of exactly what happened last night. She had sex with Frank Castle. She had fantastic sex with Frank Castle. A giddiness rises up within her at the memory. She spent so long thinking that she would never have this, never have him.

He loves her.

He loves her.

It hasn’t really sunk in yet, and she isn’t sure it will for some time. And as much as she would like to just revel in this knowledge, to curl up beside him, there’s other things that need to be done.

She finds a pad of paper in the desk and unearths a pen from her purse.

Gone down the diner outside to grab some food. Be back in twenty.

She adds a time, just in case. She knows him—and if he wakes up and she’s just gone, he’ll tear up the city looking for her.

There is a diner just down the street, as well as a pharmacy. She goes to both, keeping her head angled down and eyes on the street. As she stands in line at the pharmacy, there’s a news broadcast overhead.

PUNISHER ESCAPES PRISON runs across the screen, and Karen looks away from the tv. She settles her gaze on the floor, keeping still and quiet until it’s her turn. She lets her hair fall across her face when she talked to the pharmacist, placing several bottles of painkillers and some first aid supplies on the counter. She has to get this done quickly, before Frank wakes up or anyone recognizes her. Even if she isn’t the one the cops are looking for, she still has the sense of being hunted. The Blacksmith is out there, and there’s no doubt in her mind that he wants her dead.

When she returns to the hotel room, she has a plastic bag filled with take-out containers and a smaller, paper bag from the pharmacy.

Frank is awake; he opens the hotel room door the moment she begins to slide her key into the lock. “Hey,” she says. She steps inside. “I brought back breakfast.”

“You didn’t wake me,” Frank says. His voice has that low, rough-edged worry.

“You needed the rest,” she says. “The diner was just across the parking lot—and no one knows we’re here. And it’s your face splashed all over the news, not mine.”

He grunts, which she takes as acknowledgement that she’s right.

Karen goes to the coffee table and sets down her bags. She pulls out a tray of coffees, balanced atop several boxes.

“And I brought you this,” Karen says, and hands him a cup of coffee. An offering of peace.

He looks at her skeptically before pulling off the lid and taking a swig. Then he looks as though he’s been hit upside the head. “Fuck.”

“Yeah, I know,” she says, grinning. “One of the first things I did when I got out was drink a huge cup of coffee. You forget how bad the instant stuff when it’s the only thing you can have. But this—this is the real stuff.”

Frank takes another drink. “Goddamn.”

She opens the containers of diner food—there’s eggs and bacon, pancakes, and a huge container of fresh-cut fruit because Karen remembers how good that tasted when she emerged from prison. Frank regards the food with a kind of frowning wonder, like he can’t quite grasp that all of it is theirs. “Come on,” Karen says, with a small laugh. They sit on the floor, in front of an oversized television, eating right out of the containers.

It’s quiet and peaceful, strangely familiar. They’ve eaten countless meals together, but this is the first one outside of prison. She notices that Frank keeps glancing at the windows and the door, ever watchful. And he makes sure she takes the last slice of bacon. “This isn’t prison,” she tells him. “I do have enough to eat.”

He huffs out a breath. “I saw you eyeing it. Go on.” Frank glances at the other bag Karen set on the table. “What’s that?”

“You look like you needed some first aid.” She swallows the last of the bacon, then reaches for the paper bag. She sets a bottle of painkillers on the table. There is also antiseptic cream, a few bandages, and a concealer she thought would match his skin tone, so she can hide some of the bruises.

“And I should probably take this.” She pulls out a small white box.

Frank frowns at it. “You didn’t say you got hurt. What—”

“I didn’t,” she replies. “This is the morning after pill.”

“Oh,” he says. Then he flushes. “I—shit. Last night, I didn’t even—”

She gives him a knowing look. “Frank. In the course of twenty-four hours, you confronted Dutton, escaped prison, and saved my life. I think you can be forgiven for not picking up condoms on the way.”

Even so, he looks irritated with himself. “I didn’t even think about it. I should’ve—”

“I wanted everything that happened last night,” she tells him firmly. “I’ll just have to get back on birth control again.”

He looks at her sharply. “You will?”

“I mean, if we…” Her voice trails off. “Unless—I mean, if you’re not planning on sticking around.”

She can’t utter it as question; it hurts too much.

He shakes his head. “I’m not going back to prison, not if I can help it,” he says. “I won’t turn myself in. Maybe that’s selfish, but there it is. And if you want me, I’m not going anywhere. But—shit, the way things are going—I can’t make any promises.” That heaviness seems to return to his shoulders. “The Blacksmith’s out there. If what Dutton said is true, he was the one who brought all of those gangs together in that park. Now this piece of shit’s still out there.” 

“Yeah,” Karen says. “I’ve been thinking about that.” He isn’t going to like this, she knows. She’s been putting off proposing this idea, but she can’t hesitate any longer. “I think I know how to find him.”

“How?” he says, startled.

She smiles grimly. “With the one thing he really wants.”

There’s about a heartbeat of silence, and then he gets it. His jaw clenches hard and his dark eyes flash with anger. “No,” he says flatly.

“Frank,” she says. “If it’s the only way to draw him out—”

“I’m not using you as goddamn bait.” He looks away.

She’s the one who reaches out, gently placing her fingers at his chin. She turns his head so that he has to meet her eyes. “I’m going to be in danger until we find him,” she says. “I can’t—I can’t live like that again. Looking over my shoulder every few moments, waiting for someone to pull the trigger on me.” Her fingers skirt the edges of his jaw, down his neck, settling on the collar of his shirt. “I lived like that when Fisk was ruling this city. I didn’t fight to put him behind bars just so that the Blacksmith could take his place."

He looks at her, and she can see the conflict warring behind his eyes. His desire to find his family’s killer is waging a battle against his need to keep her safe. And maybe it’s reckless of her, but she wants to find his family’s killer, too. Living in that house, learning about Maria and the kids and—and the man that Frank used to be… it’s made her feel like she has an even greater stake in this.

“Let me do this,” she says. “I want justice for your family, too. I tried to get it through the law—and that failed. So we’ll do it your way, okay?”

He looks as though she’s asking him to climb a building bare-handed—no, actually he’d probably do that just fine. His hands are warm when they settle against her back. She can feel his thumb moving back and forth at the base of her neck, and she wants to lean into that touch, to lose herself in it. “He’ll come after you,” says Frank quietly.

“He already has. He’s going to keep coming after me regardless,” she says. “Only this way, we’ll pick the place and the time. And you’ll be waiting for him.” She gives his collar a small tug. “It’s no different than prison. Except this time, you’ll be armed.”

“It’s a shitty plan.”

“Do you have a better one?”

Pain flickers across his expression and he glances away. There’s no answer, because she knows she’s right. The Blacksmith is a ghost and the only way to track him down will be to lure him out. And the only way to do that is with something that he wants.

Karen is a loose end. He can’t just let her live.

Frank doesn’t answer. He exhales, shakes his head, and says, “I need a shower.” He rises and strides in the direction of the bathroom. Karen watches him go, her chest a little tight. The last thing she wants to do is cause him more pain. But she can’t think of another way to end this.

Karen settles on the couch, listening to the sound of the shower. She might as well do her own thing. She turns on her phone. She’s had it off since she was called into DA Reyes’ office. The screen flashes on. She opens up her voicemails, dreading what she’ll find.

The first is from Matt. “Hey, I just wanted to check in.” He sounds a little subdued; they didn’t talk after the shooting at the DA’s office. Karen went to check on Foggy and Matt vanished into the crowds. “I know we’re not in the greatest place right now and I take responsibility for that, but can you call me back?”

The second voicemail: “I went by your place and saw the cops. Karen—please call me. If you get this message. I need to know you’re okay.”

The third is time-stamped from this morning. It’s only two words. “Karen, please.” Matt sounds hoarse, wrung out. Like he’s been up all night.

The fourth is from Foggy. “Jesus Christ, Karen, call me. You call me right now or I swear to God I will make you pay off our entire Josie’s tab single-handedly. I’ve been drugged to the gills for twelve hours which is how I just heard. Mahoney stopped by to ask if I’ve seen you and I had to tell him I hadn’t and he gave me this look like he probably gives families when he has to deliver death notifications and you call me or I swear—”

Karen ends that message and clicks to the next one. Poor Foggy—her heart twists at the thought of him panicking on her account. 

Mahoney’s voicemail sounds more calm, but no less worried. “Ms. Page. There was a shooting at your apartment building and I need to know if you were there. We can get you into protective custody, keep you safe from Castle. Call me, please.” He rattles off a phone number.

The last voicemail is from Curtis. It’s time-stamped from only fifteen minutes ago.

“Hey,” he says. “You’ve probably seen the news. If you—or anyone else—needs anything, let me know. Call me back when you get the chance.”

Curtis knows. No, she amends, he doesn’t know. But he probably suspects. He’s one of Frank’s best friends and he must have guessed that Frank would go to Karen after breaking out of prison, and this is Curtis’s way of offering help. He would help. They’re probably going to need his help before this is all over.

Frank emerges from the shower in a cloud of steam. He shaved with disposable razor and he looks more put together—but still very, very bruised. “Anything urgent?”

Karen puts her phone down with a sigh. She powers her phone down again; maybe it’s paranoid of her, but she doesn’t want anyone tracking it. “No, not really. Just a lot of voicemails.”

Frank snorts. “Let me guess—someone found the shitshow at your apartment.” He nods at the tv. “I caught a little of the news while you were getting breakfast. Looks like I’m behind DA Reyes dying, too.”

Karen bristles. “That’s bullshit. That’s—Jesus. You weren’t even there.”

“Who else are they gonna blame?” Frank sits beside her on the couch. He smells like clean water and shampoo and he’s so warm that she wants to curl up beside him, to tuck her cold fingers against his side. “Blacksmith’s only known to a few people, and most of them are dead. Probably the way he likes it.” He exhales. “And you’re talkin’ like I haven’t shot up buildings.”

“Not like this,” Karen says, and she doesn’t hesitate for a second. “You never just fired blindly into a place where innocents could’ve gotten hurt. You hunted criminals, but that was calculated and planned out. You didn’t just kill people on a whim.”

“Not entirely true,” Frank says. “There was a pawnshop owner.”

She frowns at him, waiting. “And you did it because…”

“Tried to sell me underage porn,” he says simply.

“Well.” Karen shudders, pulls her knees closer to her chest. “Good riddance.”

He reaches down, curls his long fingers around her bare ankle and squeezes gently. “So does everyone think that I kidnapped you?” he asks, nodding at her phone.

Karen huffs. “No one came right out and said it, but probably.” She purses her lips. “I hate that everyone always thinks the worst of you. Even back in prison, everyone thought I was your sex slave or something.”

“Not everyone,” Frank says. “Lucero was under the impression any sex that might have been happening was entirely consensual. And a regular thing.”

She looks at him, aghast. “No.”

“Yes,” he says, with the smallest of laughs. “He told me that, right before I went after Dutton. Said we were ‘more married than most married couples.’”

“Oh my god.” Karen buries her face against her knees, laughing. “All that time.”

“He was happy for us.”

“He’s a good kid,” Karen says, her heart twisting at the thought of Lucero. He really deserves better than prison.

“He is,” Frank agrees. “You gonna call your friends back?”

“No.” She shakes her head. “Don’t want to risk turning it on, case anyone tries to track my location. I’m not leading them to you.”

“Cops could get you into protective custody.”

Karen shakes her head more emphatically this time. “I’m not a huge fan of the cops,” she says. “I’ve only met one I really liked over the last few months.” She covers his wrist with her hand. “Whatever we decide to do, we should probably just lay low for a few hours. Once it gets dark, there’s less chance of someone seeing us.”

“Right,” he says. “We should get ready. Figure out where someone like the Blacksmith would work out of, or—”

She leans in and kisses him. His cheek is soft, freshly shaven, and she gives into the impulse to stroke that cheek. Her thumb follows the line of his cheekbone, up to his ear. He goes quiet at once, startled. Then his lips part and he kisses her back, his hands on her sides. God, he’s a good kisser. He kisses like she’s the only thing in the world that matters, like he might die if he stops kissing her. He pulls her closer, until she’s splayed out across his chest and she’s all but straddling one of his thighs. 

“Or,” she says, pulling back for a few moments, “we could prove Lucero right.”

They spend most of the day in bed. 

Karen kisses her way down Frank's chest, settling between his legs, teasing him to hardness. When he’s sweating and his hands are fisted in the bedcovers, she takes his cock into her mouth, hollowing her cheeks. It’s arousing as hell to see him watching her, his chest rising and falling raggedly. One of her hands rests against his lower stomach, and she can feel the tension in his body as she runs her tongue along the crown of his cock, stroking him with her other hand. She doesn’t rush things; the weight of his gaze has her skin prickling with heat and she wants to draw this out, to savor it. When he finally comes, it’s with a groan so loud that she’s pretty sure anyone walking by their room will know exactly what’s going on.

“Goddamn,” he breathes, when she pulls off of him. “Karen.”

She loves the way he says her name.

They have sex a second time—with Karen on her back, trying to drag in breath after breath while Frank moves slowly within her. There’s a pillow wedged beneath her ass, tiling her hips upward so every stroke has him up against her g-spot and it’s so damned good. Unhurried and easy; all pleasure. She comes twice—the first time building slowly until she’s almost surprised by the sudden spiral of orgasm. The second time is with Frank’s thumb on her clit, rolling in small circles. 

Frank can’t seem to stop touching her afterwards—knuckles lightly dragging across her bare skin. She squirms when he touches a sensitive spot between her ribs.

“That tickles,” she murmurs into her pillow.

His fingers goes still.

She rolls over, so that his hand moves up her back, settling between her shoulder blades. She kisses him, slow and sleepy. “That’s one thing I should’ve figured out earlier,” she murmurs.


“You’re a cuddler.” She kisses his lower lip. “You like to snuggle."

She can hear the smile in his voice. “You’re full of shit," he says, but the words are ruined by the fact that his fingers are lazily drawing circles into her skin.

“It’s nice.” She shivers when his thumb strokes the base of her neck. “I like it.”

He pulls her even closer, so her head is pillowed on his arm and his fingers curl around her shoulder. All she can see of him is skin and an old scar near his heart. She shuts her eyes, breathes in the smell of clean sweat and the bedsheets. She’s relaxed, her guard let down because she knows that she can let it. Frank’s still touching her, and she lets him. She's safe and cherished, and she can’t remember the last time she felt either of those things.

She wishes they had more time for this.

“You falling asleep?” he asks.

“No,” she says, her eyes still closed.

“’S’kay.” She feels his mouth brush against her hair. “Get some rest.”

She wants to protest, but she sleeps better beside him than she has in months. There are no nightmares, no dreams at all. Just a deep, warm darkness that is blissful to sink into. When she wakes, it’s the smell of instant coffee and the steam of Frank showering a second time that day. He emerges from the bathroom, towel sloping around his waist. Karen hasn’t moved; she has barely opened her eyes. She just listens to Frank as he gets dressed, drinks coffee, and then goes into her purse. She recognizes the click-click of a magazine being ejected from a gun.

Karen rolls over so that she faces him. Frank is on the nearby chair, Karen’s gun in hand. He’s looking it over. “Morning,” Karen yawns, rubbing a hand across her eyes.

“More like evening.” He sets the gun on the table, muzzle pointed at the wall. “You slept pretty hard.”

“Someone wore me out.” She stretches, sighing as her back gives a satisfying pop. “Everything all right?”

“Just looking this over.” Frank settles a hand on the pistol. “You never fired it, did you?”

“Never needed to.” She nods at the gun. “I was glad to have it, though. Made me feel safer.” 

“Good.” He comes to sit on the edge of the bed. His expression is troubled as he looks her over, and she wonders exactly what he’s seeing. She reaches for him and he allows it, lets her pull him down so she can kiss him. His large hand cups her cheek.

“Okay,” he says softly.

She blinks up at him. “Okay?”

“If we do this,” says Frank. “We’re doing it my way.”

Abruptly, all of the exhaustion vanishes from her. He’s talking about her plan—about using her as a lure for the Blacksmith. Part of her never thought he would actually go along with it.

“One condition,” he says. “If I give you an order, you follow it. I tell you run, you run. I tell you to get behind something, you get behind it. If I tell you to leave me, you do it. No questions asked, no hesitation.”

She wants to argue, but she won’t. He’s doing this against his better judgement; she might as well put his mind at ease.

“Okay,” she agrees quietly.

“I mean it,” he says warningly. “We’re not doing this if I think you’re gonna pull some hero bullshit on me.”

“I promise, Frank,” she says.

The unease still doesn’t leave his expression, but he nods.

Karen goes down to the hotel lobby to check out. She’s wearing the same clothes as before, which makes her feel a little sleazy, but at least the person behind the counter is different. Karen pays for their stay, then she meets Frank at her car. He’s wearing a baseball cap—she has no idea where he got it. It says “I Heart New York” on it and she can’t help but crack a smile. “Nice disguise.”

“Yeah, yeah,” says Frank. “Makes me look a little less like a convicted murderer.”

“You look like a tourist."

“That’s worse,” he says.

His bruises are becoming only more visible by the hour. Karen helped disguise some of them with the concealer she purchased at the pharmacy, but make-up can only do so much. Karen kisses his cheek gently before she slides into the driver’s seat. Frank goes under that blanket in the backseat, grumbling about how she needs a wider car. Her heartbeat picks up as she drives back into Hell’s Kitchen. The last twenty-four hours have felt so removed from the rest of her life—she can’t remember the last time she was so happy. But now that happiness drains away. Her fingers tighten around the steering wheel.

She drives to her apartment. There’s police tape, but no visible presence. “You stay here,” Karen says, unsnapping her seatbelt. “I need to grab a change of clothes.”

“No.” The word comes from under that woolen blanket, but the finality is unmistakable.

“Frank, we need whoever’s watching my apartment to see me,” she says. “And not you. And I smell. I want new clothes.”

There’s a soft grumble. “If there’s anyone watching your apartment, they’ll see the car. Unless they’re bad at this. We sit here for five minutes, then we move on.”

“And what are the Blacksmith’s people going to think when I just sit in the parking lot and never go in?”

“That you chickened out,” he replies. “That you came back but were too scared to go in.”

“I feel like I should be offended by that.”

“They don’t know you.” The blanket rustles and then a hand reaches through the gap between the driver and passenger seats. She takes his hand, and he tangles their fingers together. She isn’t sure if he’s holding onto to her because he’s trying to keep her here or if he just wants to touch her. Either way she isn’t complaining. “And you’re not getting shot because you wanted clean underwear."

“Please,” she says, with a snort. “I didn’t even bother putting those back on after round one. I left them in the trash."

There’s a moment of silence. “Probably shouldn’t ask,” says Frank, “but what are you wearing right now?"

“Not underwear,” says Karen. She can’t hide the smile in her voice. “If it’s good enough for the Punisher, it’s good enough for me."

A quiver goes through his hand, and she realizes he’s laughing beneath the blanket. 

Five minutes pass excruciatingly slow. Then she drives away. She keeps glancing in her rearview mirror, half-hoping and half-dreading to see someone following her. The roads are busy with late commuters and those going out. The night is all dark city streets, pierced by bright headlights. Karen drives aimlessly, trying to keep track of anyone who might be following.

It takes about twenty minutes, but she sees an old, rusty car a few vehicles behind her. It follows for three turns—and that’s when she knows.

“We’ve got a tail,” she murmurs.

“Good.” Frank’s voice rumbles out from behind her. “Find a place to park. Make it look natural. Someplace a single woman would go.”

They’re in a sketchier part of town, full of pawn shops and abandoned buildings. The only place Karen can see that she would go is a diner. She pulls up.

The old car drives past, turns right at the corner. “You go in first,” Frank says, eyes scanning the block. “I’m gonna check for exits.”

Karen nods, shoulders tight, and strides for the front door. The place is deserted; most people will be headed to bars. The server is an older woman who smiles at Karen and tells her to sit where she wants. Karen takes the farthest booth from the exit, knowing that Frank will want the seat facing the door. She slides in, nodding her thanks as the server sets down a single menu.

It takes Frank about five minutes to scout the exits, then he strides into the diner. He orders black coffee. “Keep it coming, ma’am,” he says, after the first sip. Their server appears charmed by his manners, if not his bruises.

“Nothing for me.” Karen’s stomach feels tight beneath her ribs. She tries to smile at Frank, but when the server drops a container of silverware, the sound has her flinching.

Frank takes her hand. His knuckles are badly bruised, but he doesn’t seem to notice or care. His thumb strokes across her hand. “Hey,” he says softly. “’S’gonna be okay.”

She nods. She doesn’t regret her decision to do this, but her body can’t seem to remember that. Part of her feels like a hunted animal, out in the open, waiting for the predators she knows are coming.

“So much for being brave,” she says.

The corner of his mouth curls upward. God, he looks good when he smiles. Even bruised to hell, he’s still striking. “There’s a difference between being brave and being stupid. No shame in feeling a bit of nerves when you know something’s dangerous.”

“What if they just open fire into the diner?” she asks. There are so many windows.

“Because they’ve tried that twice,” says Frank. “And both times, you came out alive. If the Blacksmith is as good as we think he is, he’ll tell his guys to do it personally.”

That’s not much of a comfort. So she tries to recall the faces in that old photograph—Maria, Lisa, Frankie Junior. She’s doing this for them as much as she’s doing it for Frank. They deserve justice. That eases some of the tension, makes her feel less on edge. Frank keeps stroking her hand, and she tries to focus on that. Even that small point of contact has her relaxing. A slight smile touches her mouth.

“What is it?” he asks, seeing her shift in expression.

She shakes her head. “Just—hard to believe it. We’re both out of prison, sitting in a diner, holding hands. It feels so… normal.”

“Wasn’t expecting this either,” he says, a little dryly.

“And what were you expecting?” she asks.

He shrugs. “Me to still be in prison, for one thing. And you off, doing your own thing.”

“You really thought I’d leave you there?” she asks, brows drawing tight. “Abandon you and Lucero and Tansy?”

He shrugs a second time. “You’re not that kind of person,” he says. “I knew you’d probably keep coming for probably longer than was healthy. That place fucked you up, I know it did. But after a few years, you’d move on. Find someone who’d treat you right, maybe rent a bigger apartment, live a life.”

She wonders if he’ll ever understand how much he means to her. She trusts him on a gut level that she isn’t sure she trusts anyone else, and that’s what she never had on that date with Matt. Even at a nice restaurant, both of them dressed up and smiling at one another, she didn’t feel half as comfortable as she does here—even if she’s dressed in dirty clothes and no underwear, sitting in a sketchy neighborhood diner.

Abruptly, his fingers tighten around hers. “What?” she says quickly.

“That car just pulled over,” he says, eyes on the window. His face is hard, jaw barely moving as he speaks. “They’re coming.”

“What now?”

“Get the waitress,” he says quietly. “Tell her and the cook to get out. You get behind the thickest piece of steel you can find.” He leans forward. “Do not come out until you hear me call for you, okay?”

She nods tightly, rises, and hurries to the server.

It turns out there’s an exit at the back of the kitchen, one that both the server and cook escape through. The server tries to coax Karen into coming with them, but Karen shakes her head and just tells them to get someplace safe before calling the cops.

Karen stays in the kitchen, crouched as small as she can. She hears when the fight breaks out.

It’s torture, listening to the sounds of metal hitting flesh, to grunts and slams and crashes and not being able to see, to know who’s getting hurt. Frank could be beaten to death less than twenty feet from her and she’s just hiding here—but he made her promise. And if she interferes, she could make things worse.

Something crashes and then there’s a shatter of glass. A shout.

A gun goes off and Karen presses her fingers to her ears, trying to muffle the deafening sound. There’s a ringing silence, then another crash.

There’s a snarl—a groan. Then, “The Blacksmith. Where is he?” Frank. He’s still alive. 

“Screw you!” That’s a stranger’s voice, ragged with pain.

Another gunshot rings out and Karen squeezes her eyes shut.

There’s the distinctive sound of flesh hitting flesh, of a sickening crack that must be bone.

Then, things go quiet.

So fucking quiet.

Please, she thinks. Please, please—


She rises. Her knees are unsteady but he’s there, walking into the kitchen.

His knuckles are bleeding and there’s a fresh cut at his mouth. But he’s alive and those men clearly aren’t. A glance and she sees that they didn’t die cleanly—bone and muscle and ripped skin—

She has to look away as her stomach gives an unsteady lurch. The last thing she wants to do is throw up. She presses a hand to her mouth, breathes through her nose.

They’re dead. All dead. Maybe that should weigh on her—he just ended the lives of three men. But they came here to kill her first. It was self-defense, in a fucked up way.

Frank moves into the light of the kitchen. He looks her over, his bruised face drawn with concern. He doesn’t touch her, though, and she realizes that he is waiting for her to make the first move. She steps forward, grabbing a clean cloth from a stack and presses it to the corner of his mouth. Crimson stains the white cotton, and it must hurt to have her pressing against the cut, but he seems to lean into the touch. His hand comes up, covers hers.

“Hey,” she says, voice unsteady.

“Hey.” He bends toward her, his other hand curling around her waist. “You okay?”

She should be asking him that. But she just nods.

“I got an address,” he says. “At the docks. You need to go.”

“Go where?” she asks, frowning.

“Cops,” he says. “You’re gonna have to call them. Your friends need to know you’re alive, and the police will protect you.” He squeezes her shoulders gently. “Tell them someone shot at your apartment but you survived. Tell them you ran, you stayed at the hotel. No one saw me with you, so they can’t pin you down as my accomplice. Then tell them you came here, and I followed you in. The waitress will back you up on that. You didn’t see me until tonight."

She shakes her head. “Frank…”

“You’re not going back to prison,” he says quietly. “Not for me. Tell them I found you here, asked for your help but you refused. When these men came after you, I killed them, then ran.”

She stares at him. “And you’re going…?”

“I’m gonna deal with the Blacksmith.”

“Frank,” she says. “You’re injured.”

Even as she says the words, she knows he won’t care. His eyes are hard. “Doesn’t matter. This asshole—he took my family. He killed my kids.” His voice breaks on the last word and her heart breaks for him. “I’ve gotta do this.”

“I know,” she whispers. “I know. I just wish—I know I’m not the kind of back-up you need, but is there anyone else? Curtis or Bill?”

He shakes his head. “I’m not involving them in this.”

“Frank.” She doesn’t know what else she can say.

Part of her always knew it would come to this—to a steady drip-drip of blood against the floor, to Frank’s bruised knuckles brushing her cheeks, to the heat of his mouth as he kisses her farewell. The kiss tastes like copper and adrenaline, and she can’t make it last long enough. Her stomach twists in on itself and she grabs his coat, holding on so tight that her hands ache. Her own fears are a burden he can’t carry right now, but she knows her lips are forming the words against his mouth.

Be safe. Please.

It feels like losing him all over again when he steps back. “Be careful,” he says quietly. He tugs the baseball cap back across his face, then turns and strides out of the diner and into the dark.

Mahoney takes on look at Karen and barks at the EMTs to stop looking at the bodies and attend to her.

Karen isn’t sure what she looks like—sitting behind the diner register, a phone beside her. She feels a little vacant in her own body, like she’s just going through the motions as the EMT walks toward her. Glass crunches beneath his feet as he crouches beside Karen, shines a light in her eyes and asks her a few basic questions. She tells Mahoney the story that Frank concocted. When she’s finished, Mahoney is looking at her like he’s seeing a ghost. She understands; in Mahoney’s eyes, she’s one of the few people to have faced the Punisher and lived.

“Take her to my car,” Mahoney says to one of the EMTs. “Unless you think she needs a hospital.”

The EMT shakes his head. “No injures.” He holds out a hand and helps Karen to her feet.

There’s so many lights outside, even at this hour. Cop cars and ambulances and the flash of cameras. Karen keeps her face averted as she’s led to Mahoney’s car and put in the passenger seat. The doors are locked and she’s left alone.

She wonders if she should be doing something. She has her purse in her lap—the EMT must have grabbed it for her. She checks her phone, realizes it’s still off, then holds down the power button. There’s another five new voicemails. Karen ignores them all and calls Foggy.

A woman picks up. “Is that you, Page?”

It takes Karen a few moments to recall that voice. It’s Marci—Foggy’s ex. At least someone’s with him. “Yeah, it’s me,” Karen says.

“Oh, thank God.” Marci’s relief is something of a surprise. She and Karen aren’t friends; they’ve only interacted once or twice. “Foggy’s been worried. He’s sleeping, and he’s a little stoned, but hold on.” There’s a rustling and before Karen can tell her not to bother Foggy, there’s a groggy voice.


“Hey, Foggy,” says Karen. “You okay?”

There’s a sputter, then a curse. “Karen,” he says. “You—you’re alive?”

“If not, then I’m haunting Mahoney’s car,” she says. “He’s got me in protective custody.”

“Where have you been?”

She wonders how he would react to the truth. Sorry, Foggy. I would’ve picked up your phone calls, but I was busy having sex with the man every cop in the city is trying to hunt right now.

Still, he deserves part of the truth. “I ran,” she says. “When someone shot out my apartment.”

“I heard the Punisher—”

“It wasn’t Frank,” she says. “He didn’t kill Reyes. He didn’t shoot you. He found me afterward, saved my life.”

There’s a pause, so full of disbelief that Karen knows there will be no convincing Foggy.

There’s a little more conversation after that—empty reassurances and a few more untruths. Karen hates that this is her life now, that she’s all tangled up in lies, but she’ll keep Frank’s secrets.

“You call Matt yet?” asks Foggy, just as she’s about to tell him goodbye.

Karen hesitates. “No. I—could you do that?” Maybe it’s cowardly of her, but she doesn’t want to talk to him. She doesn’t want to manage his protectiveness, fend him off the way she knows she’ll have to. She likes Matt, she really does, but he’ll try to take control of this and she doesn’t want him to. And hell, maybe this will get Foggy and Matt talking again.

She hangs up the phone before Foggy can answer.

It takes about an hour before Mahoney returns to the car. He looks exhausted but when he glances at Karen, he shakes his head. “Sorry. Got caught up in there—should’ve—” He reaches across her and she stiffens.

He notices. Pulls his arm back slowly, deliberately. “Glove compartment,” he says. And while his voice isn’t gentle, it’s something near to it. “There’s a few water bottles. Granola bars. You look like you need it.”

She nods, opens the glove compartment. Sure enough, there are snacks and some water. She goes for the water, pulling off the cap and taking a long drink.

Mahoney keeps his hands on the steering wheel. In plain sight, she realizes. He’s doing so for her benefit.

He’s a decent man. One of the rare good ones—and even if he is a cop, she has to think a little better of him after this. “I’m going to take you back to the station,” he says. “We’ll get you a place to stay, get some eyes on you. You’re going to be okay." But as he’s pulling his car onto the street, his radio buzzes to life.

Karen doesn’t know much cop shorthand, but she doesn’t need it.

“—Explosion at the docks,” someone is saying. “Confirmed fatalities. All available police officers need to—”

Mahoney curses, revs the engine, and makes a u-turn. “Sorry,” he says. “I’ll get you to the station afterward.” Karen is barely listening to him. 

The docks. An explosion at the docks. Her fingers curl around the door handle, nails digging into the plastic. She wants to tell Mahoney to drive faster, but she can’t, not without tipping him off that she knows more than she’s told him. 

Drive. Just drive, just fucking drive—

There are flames in the distance. A bright orange painted across the smudge of the horizon.

When the police car comes to a halt, Karen is out of it before Mahoney even unbuckles his seatbelt. He calls for her to stop, to get back there, but she ignores him. Her feet carry her to the docks, to boat in flames.


She calls his name—once, twice, and then Mahoney is beside her and trying to pull her back.

There have been a few moments when Karen knows—she just knows—that she has lost someone. There was that moment in the hospital, when she was so young, Kevin asleep with his head on her shoulder. The seats in the ICU weren’t more comfortable than the ones in the cancer ward, but they were less used. Karen stared at a crack in the floor, wondered what had caused it, and when the doors slid open and their dad walked out—Karen knew. She took one look at her father’s gray face and understood the enormity of what she had lost.

She felt it again in an overturned truck. With the smell of smoke and stale winter air and blood and her hair in her eyes. It felt like another part of her had been torn away.

And now—


Frank doesn’t answer. He doesn’t show up. Not even when her voice breaks. Every other time, he’s been there. Even when he didn’t know her, when she was just another inmate screaming for help, he came running.

But he doesn’t show up to save her this time. And that’s how she knows that he’s gone.

They dredge up bodies all night.

Karen doesn’t leave the dock; she remains sitting on a forgotten crate, a blanket across her shoulders. Mahoney stops by a few times to check on her.

She wants to be here when they bring Frank up. She doesn’t want him to be alone on one of these plastic pallets. He’ll be surrounded by people who think him only the Punisher, who don’t know that he was a father, that he played guitar, that he won awards for valor, that he kept a kid in prison safe, that he was addicted to black coffee, that he had a code and lived up to it, that he smelled a little like soap and metal, that he kissed like she was the only thing in the world that mattered.

He was a person and now—now he’ll be parts. Just… parts.

Of course he’s gone. It seems so obvious in hindsight now. Karen should have learned long ago that her curse is to never keep anyone she cares about.

When dawn breaks, Mahoney tells her to go home. 

There’s a tight, stretched sensation around her eyes that she remembers from pulling all-nighters in college. But she’s older now, and she feels the lack of sleep more keenly. She should probably get some rest, but her apartment is a crime scene and she can’t go back to Frank’s house. There will probably be surveillance or cops or—

The world blurs and she isn’t sure if it is due to tears or exhaustion.

She rises. The blanket slips from her shoulders. 

She can’t go home, so she goes to the next best thing.

She goes to the Bulletin.

The newspaper offices are utter chaos. Interns look harried as they carry laptops under one arm and coffee orders in the other. A few of the senior reporters that Karen has come to recognize are at their desks, typing with furious intensity. She walks past them all, trying to ignore the curious glances. She looks like shit, she knows. She hasn’t changed her clothes in three days, her hair is a mess, and she smells like smoke. It’s a wonder security even let her inside. 

Ellison is in his office, working on the breaking story of the explosion. When he sees her, he stands so quickly that the tops of his thighs hit his desk. His coffee swirls and his laptop jerks. A flash of pain crosses his face, but then he’s stepping around the desk and toward her. She half-expects him to demand details. But his face clouds with concern and he’s taking her into his office. She finds herself in one of the spare chairs, a mug of coffee in her hand and a muffin beside her.

“What happened?” Ellison asks.

She looks at him blearily. “On or off the record?”

“What kind of ghoul do you think I am?” asks Ellison. Then he reconsiders. “Okay, yeah, maybe I would like a quote when you’re up to it, but Jesus. This isn’t an interview. I’m asking as a friend—are you okay?”

Karen looks at the far wall. She isn’t sure how to answer.

“Frank Castle died in an explosion at the docks,” she says. “That’s what the police think.”

“And what do you think?”

She thinks that if Frank heard Karen calling for him, he would have come. Or he would have found her afterward. But this continued silence… it isn’t like him. Not at all.

She thinks that this love story only had one ending. Maybe part of her always knew that, which was why she kissed him at the hotel. There was so little time, she had to seize what little of it they had. 

Her eyes ache but she hasn’t cried. It hasn’t sunk in enough for her to truly grieve yet. 

“I’m sorry,” she says. “I don’t think there’s going to be an exposé about Castle or the DA’s office—not anymore. It’s over.” Even saying the words hurts. 

Ellison looks at her. There isn’t any pity in his face, which she’s grateful for. She doesn’t think she could stand his pity.

“Of course there’s a story,” he says. “That family—all of them. The Castles. You just going to abandon them now? Let everything about them go untold?”

At first she wants to lash out at him. She’s so tired and—and she doesn’t know how much more fight she has left in her. But he’s right. He’s right. She forces herself to drink the coffee, to think ahead. 

Frank Castle deserves to have his story told.

And if nothing else, someone has to write his obituary.

She should go home.

She doesn’t.

She should go talk to Curtis.

She doesn’t.

She should sleep, but she knows there will only be nightmares waiting for her.

So she doesn’t.

She knows Frank’s file backwards and forwards. She knows more about him than she’s probably known about anyone that wasn’t a blood relative. She knows his birthday, his home address, his friends’ names, what guns he favored, how he smelled, the noises he made when he was surprised, how he took his coffee, the rough calluses along his palms—

She squeezes her eyes shut. 

But her own knowledge isn’t enough. 

If she is going to write this story, there must be other voices. Others who believe that Frank Castle wasn’t just a list of crimes and bodies. There is Curtis and Bill, but Karen wants a voice of authority. Someone that might command respect and force the Bulletin’s readers to reconsider their stance on the Punisher. 

She gets her car from the diner and drives north. Because there’s a name she remembers from Frank’s trial—there was only one man to testify in Frank’s favor. A character witness. His former CO, a colonel Schoonover, lives two hours away. He’s a decorated officer; surely, if the public will listen to anyone, it’s him. And part of Karen wants to talk to him. She’s spoken to Curtis and to Bill that one time, but she wants another view on Frank. Maybe she’s looking for her own answers, too. 

And she has to do something or else—or else she’ll be forced to sit still. To sit with the loss and the pain, and she isn’t ready for that yet. She has to hold onto Frank for as long as she can, if only through memories.

It’s only when she’s pulling up to his home in the woods that she realizes Schoonover probably likes his privacy. He won’t be well-disposed toward a reporter that shows up in the evening, with no appointment and no real credentials.

But she’s young and blonde and pretty, and that’s enough to get through the door and into the living room. Schoonover has white hair and the kind of voice that carries authority, even when he’s asking if she wants anything to drink.

When she tells him why she’s there, he frowns. “Frank’s gone?”

“I’m sorry,” she says. “It isn’t public knowledge yet.”

Schoonover exhales, looking tired and a little sad. He talks like Frank is a real person, which she appreciates. He mentions Frank doing impressions, which Karen cannot imagine, and that Frank could know a person with glance—which she can imagine. She’s seen it herself. 

But when she turns to look at the photos on his wall—that’s when things fall apart.

She sees faces. Faces she recognizes because she saw them less than twelve hours ago. They were on a dock, dragged up by the cops, taken away in bags. At least three of them—she knows them.

Those men on the dock. Those dead men, the ones the cops said must have been fighting with the Punisher—they’re in these photos. They’re smiling beside Colonel Schoonover and Frank and—

A sick feeling settles in her stomach. She isn’t sure what’s happening, except she has to get out. Her instincts are screaming at her to smile, to leave as quickly and quietly as she can. But when she turns to tell him she should go, it isn’t Schoonover she sees.

It’s the gun in his hand.

That’s when she truly understands. 

He’s the Blacksmith.

Of course he is. Because the drugs were shipped out of the middle east, because those men who’ve been killing people throughout the city did so with military grade weapons, because nothing in her life can ever go fucking right. 

Schoonover smiles at her. “I must say, Ms. Page. You saved us some trouble by coming here.” He jerks the gun. “Come on. Outside.” 

So he won’t kill her inside the house, at least. She finds herself walking to the foyer, out of the front door and down the steps toward her car. 

Karen will never get used to being held at gunpoint. Her hands are shaking as she puts the key into the ignition, as Schoonover barks at her to drive.

She pulls out onto a dirt road, into the woods. 

God. This is how she’s going to die. The Blacksmith is going to shoot her, to leave her body in the woods for no one to find. She’ll be another unsolved mystery, her bones sleeping beneath a layer of pine needles and dirt.

She drives farther into the woods, Schoonover’s voice is hard as he tells her to pull over. 

She should pull over.

But she doesn’t.

A fire ignites behind her ribs. This man had a hand in the deaths of the entire Castle family: those two children, with the dinosaur toys and the remote-controlled truck and the scrawled pictures on the fridge; Maria, who kept a closet full of winter clothes even if they didn’t fit anymore and had boxes full of pictures of her family, the dates scribbled on the backs; and Frank, who liked liked dogs, who read classic books even if they were tediously boring, who played guitar and piano, who always gave her the last of the sausages when the prison cafeteria served them, who fought like a berserker and loved with everything he had.

She is not going to let Schoonover get away with it. She can’t.

So she slams her foot into the gas and yanks hard on the steering wheel. Schoonover hits the door hard, having not buckled his seatbelt. There’s a shout and then the car jounces, shakes Karen so hard her back teeth rattle. There’s a tree around the bend, a thick oak and she guns the engine as hard as she can. Schoonover is snarling and she feels him grab her, his fingers in her hair and the gun like a cold kiss against her jaw.

The oak tree looms, a thick shadow with branches reaching out like fingers. As if it’s beckoning them closer. Karen squeezes the steering wheel, her breath coming harsh and fast.

The last time she crashed a car, it was by accident. She doesn’t want this, wants to pull the steering wheel away, but she has to—

The car slams into the tree with bone-jarring force.

There’s a scream, an agonizing wrench, the scent of smoke and burning metal, and then something sticky and hot trickling down through her hair. Karen groans, but she feels more than hears it. She must black out for a few seconds, because when she opens her eyes, things aren’t moving. 

Everything is quiet, but for the sound of gasoline dripping, the tinkle of falling glass, and the clicking sounds of a cooling engine. Karen blinks, trying to bring the world back into focus, but everything feels far away.

She doesn’t know if Schoonover survived. She should find the gun, but when she tries to move, a lightning bolt of pain flashes through her neck and shoulder.

God. She’s going to pass out. She’s dizzy and sick to her stomach and it feels like those times when she drank too much, when the world was spinning and she was sitting still. She doesn’t know how badly the crash injured her, but she can’t afford to pass out. She needs to stay awake, to call for help. But she can’t. The seatbelt has her pinned in place and there are airbags and everything is too dark and smells like burning plastic. 

She sees twin circles of light. For a few moments, she thinks it must be the light at end of the tunnel—and surely, that can’t be true because if there is an afterlife, she’s pretty sure she isn’t headed upstairs—but then there’s the distinct crack of a car door being slammed shut.

Not the light at the end of the tunnel.


Someone’s here. 

It’s the last thought she has before the darkness pulls her down.

When she comes to, pain is the first thing to register. Her head aches and her eyes are stinging and her shoulder is on fire.

Sound is the next thing to return. There’s a blurred noise in her ears, like someone shouting underwater.

“—No, no, no. Karen, I told you none of this hero bullshit. Open your eyes, that’s it—come on."

She blinks; there is broken glass on her chest, beneath her shirt, along her cheek. Fingers brush the glass away, then stroke her temple. She winces at the noise.

“Hey, hey.” The voice softens, as if its owner can tell how badly her head hurts. “That’s it. You’re okay. I’ve got you.”

Her hand comes up, touches her forehead. Her fingers are bloody when she looks at them.

The car. The car is broken all around her, and she finally remembers what happened.

A crash. She crashed and—

Her heartbeat picks up wildly and she makes a thin, strangled sound. Her fingers scrabble for the seatbelt. She can’t find it, and she struggles, trying to wrench herself free.

She can’t—she can’t—can’t do this again—not again.

There’s a high-pitched noise, almost a whimper, and it’s coming from her.

“Karen!” There’s that voice again. “Shit. Shit. I should’ve realized—hold on. I’ve got you.”

She is lifted up and out of her seat before she realizes what has happened, she’s outside, being gently lowered to the ground. Leaves brush her fingertips and there’s the scents of smoke and damp wood. A forest. The road.

She blinks. His features seem to come together in the sharp illumination of the headlights.

She has to be concussed. She has to be, because otherwise—

“Frank?” she says blearily.

“Hey, hey.” His hand is at her cheek. “Don’t move, okay? I need to look you over. Just don’t move.” His hand skims down her neck, to her shoulder, and she makes another pained noise. Then he’s checking her other arm, down her stomach, then her legs. It feels a little like a pat-down an airport. His face appears above hers again.

“You’re,” she begins to say, then doesn’t know how to continue. “The docks…”

“The devil pulled me out of there,” says Frank, and there’s a deep vein of frustration in his voice. “I’ll tell you later. Now—now I have to deal with Schoonover.”

“He’s the Blacksmith,” Karen says. She tries to sit up, but Frank’s hand rests heavily on her chest, keeping her down. “Is he—”

“I know,” he says. “Shh, hey. I need you do something for me, okay?” He leans down, brushes the hair from her sticky forehead. “Count to two hundred. And don’t move.”

“Two hundred?” she asks, frowning.

“Two hundred,” he repeats.

Karen blinks several times. “I—Frank, what…?”

“Just do it, okay?” he says. “It’s important. Count aloud.”

She doesn’t get it. But she trusts Frank. “Okay,” she says. He kisses her forehead, and when he sits up, she sees the corner of his mouth is crimson with her blood.

“Count,” he repeats softly.

“One,” she says. “Two, three—”

Frank rises to his feet and walks around the side of the car. Her car—ruined. But she thinks Ben would have approved of her sacrificing it to stop someone like Schoonover.

“—Four, five—”

She can hear the sound of the passenger door being wrenched off its hinges. There’s a shriek of metal, then a groan that doesn’t belong to Frank. Something heavy hitting the pavement, then a dragging sound. Across the road and away.

“—Six, seven—”

A hoarse laugh. It sounds like it’s coming from far away. “I should’ve known. You’re like a goddamn cockroach. Don’t know when to die.”

There’s another sound—flesh hitting flesh—and then a grunt. “Shut the fuck up.” And that’s Frank, the promise of violence lurking beneath every word. Then a whisper of leaves as something—no, someone—is dragged away into the woods.

Karen keeps counting. He asked her to, there must be a reason.

She gets to one hundred and forty-seven—and then she hears the crack of gunfire. 

She goes quiet. 

A minute passes, then she hears footsteps. Frank strides into the shine of the headlights. 

He kneels down, puts a hand beneath her uninjured shoulder.“Come on, sweetheart,” he says. “Let’s get out of here.”

Chapter Text

Frank takes stock of the damage.

First things first—he gets her car off of the road first, parking it in the woods. He’ll have to come back for it later. Then he gets Karen situated in the passenger seat of his stolen truck, doing his best to keep her neck and head steady with a spare jacket. Her shoulder’s injured and there’s blood in her hair, but they can’t stay. More of Schoonover’s allies could arrive; the cops could show up; any number of things go could wrong.

Frank pulls back onto the country road and drives. The rumble of the truck is a comforting one; he took it from the Cartel back when he was working as the Punisher and stashed it in rented storage under a different name. It had been simple to return and retrieve the truck and a few guns. It isn’t a luxury ride, but the worn seats and heft of the truck are more his style. He glances at Karen; her gaze is distant, focused on the dark road. Her shoulder might just be wrenched or it could be dislocated. Some of the glass cut her scalp and there’s blood on her cheek and neck. It looks worse than it is, he knows that on an intellectual level. On a gut level, he wants to kill Schoonover again.

He doesn’t remember ever seeing her quite so panicked as when she awoke amidst the wreckage of the car. To escape Schoonover, she relived the worst moments of her life—and he knows there’ll be a cost for that. He hates that she was the one to pay it; this was his fight, and she never should have been caught up in it. 

He looks at Karen again; she’s leaning against the window, her eyes closed. 

Frank’s fingers tighten on the steering wheel. “Hey, you still with me?”

Karen mumbles something and his heart hammers.

“Not good enough, Karen,” he says. “Talk to me.”

She blinks one eye open at him. “What’d you want me to say?”

“You seeing stars?” he says.


“Hearing a low buzzing?”

“Just someone who won’t let me rest.”

“Drowsiness is the sign of a concussion, too.”

“It’s also a symptom when a person hasn’t slept in over twenty-four hours.” Karen looks at him, and he can see a bit of anger mixed in with the relief. “What happened?”

He knows what she wants to say. Where were you? Why didn’t you come? He heard her on the docks, heard her call his name until her voice broke. “I was on the boat,” he says. “About to kill a man I thought was the Blacksmith. But the asshole in the devil’s costume found me. Stopped me from killing the man on there, saying it wasn’t the Blacksmith.”

“Daredevil,” says Karen, blinking several times. “How’d he get involved?”

“No idea,” says Frank. “But, we both jumped off of the boat before the explosion went off. I swam to shore, got out of there. I tried to get to you, but first you were with the police and then at the Bulletin. Didn’t want to call you, in case the cops were tracking your phone records. And I thought… if the Blacksmith was still looking for you…”

Karen understands. “You were using me as bait,” she says. “You thought the Blacksmith would come after me again.”

“Yes,” he says honestly, because he won’t lie to her. “It was a shitty plan, but at the boat… Karen. I recognized one of the men who came after me. He was from my unit, injured overseas. Dutton—when I questioned him in prison, he said that the heroin was shipped from the middle east. I started making connections, but I wasn’t sure until I saw Schoonover pull a gun on you.”

“I saw that man’s body,” Karen says softly, and he looks at her sharply before forcing his gaze back to the road. “He was in one of the pictures in Schoonover’s office. That’s when I realized something was wrong. I tried to get out of there but I couldn’t.”

“Why’d you go there?” This is the one thing he can’t figure out. “If you didn’t know Schoonover was the Blacksmith, what made you go there?”

She covers her eyes for a moment and his chest tightens. Sensitivity to light is another sign of brain trauma and he wants—fuck, he wants to pull this truck over and examine her again. He wants to drive her to the nearest hospital and bully the doctors into giving her the best care possible. He wants all of this to be over, to fast-forward long enough so that they’re both uninjured and safe and this bloody, exhausting week is far behind them.

Her hand drops and she looks at him—and he realizes that there are tears on her face. A shuddering breath rips through her. “I went there—because if I was going to write your obituary, then I wanted to talk to your commanding officer. I wanted him on the record saying you were a decent person, because maybe then someone would believe it.”

For a few seconds, it feels hard to breathe.

He knew, intellectually, that she probably thought he was dead. It was hard, but he allowed it because he needed to find the Blacksmith. To avenge his family and keep Karen safe. But it’s only now, hearing her say the word ‘obituary,’ that he realizes how deep that wound goes.

She was sure he was dead. And he’d made no effort to correct that assumption. He hasn’t lied to her since that first fight, since she found out he’d let her think his family was still alive. After that, they’ve been careful to be honest with one another.

What if it had been her? He imagines how things might have gone down if she faked her own death after the shooting in the DA office. If he emerged from prison to the news that Karen Page had been gunned down and he’d been too far away to stop it—


Just... fuck.

He pulls over to the side of the road. They’ve still got twenty minutes or so until they hit a freeway, and then they’ll return to New York. He unbuckles his seatbelt, then reaches for Karen. He tries to be gentle but she isn’t—she wraps her arms around his neck and presses her face into his shoulder. “Don’t do that, ever again,” she says, words muffled. “I thought you were dead, I thought—”

“I know,” he says quietly. “Shh, s’okay.” He closes his eyes, blocking out the sharp illumination of the headlights and the glow of the dashboard. It’s a risk to just be pulled over like this, but he needs her to understand. “Never wanted you caught up in this.” 

“Caught up in what?” she says, her voice muffled against his shoulder. “In your life? Screw that. I knew what I was getting into, Frank. And I’m not letting you go.” Her fingers tighten on him. “Okay?” 

Part of him wishes that he could deny her. That he could push her away from all of this—his shit and his past. There’s an instinctive need to hide, to just curl up in that dark and lonely place he made for himself after his family died. But that’s the coward’s way out and he’s not taking it. Karen made her choice when she kissed him; she made it when she agreed to share a cell with him; she made it when she took a bloodied shiv from his hand. She’s making it now. 

As for him—there’s never been much choice at all. 

“Okay,” he says softly.

He drives them to Curtis’s place. As much as he wants to, Frank cannot take Karen to a hospital. His face is all over the news; if Karen needs an ER, it’ll have to be Curt who takes her. Frank parks the car in the shadows about a block from the apartment building. There’s the distant clanging of a railroad crossing and nearby traffic, but the night is otherwise quiet. Karen gets out of the truck stiffly. Her arm is pressed against her belly and she looks bleary-eyed with pain and exhaustion. Frank puts a hand at her back, glancing around them as they walk toward the apartments. He is pretty sure they weren’t followed, but he didn’t take as many turns as he should have. Karen needs attention and Frank is worn out. 

Frank knows Curt’s address and he presses the button for the right apartment. There’s about a thirty-second wait, then the front door buzzes open. They take the elevator up and walk to the right door.

It’s already open and Curt stands there in sweatpants and a worn USMC shirt.  

Curtis takes one look at them—Karen, with dried blood on her face, and Frank, who smells like powder and dirt—and lets out a long breath. “I figured I’d see the two of you eventually,” he says. “Karen, sit down at the table, please. Frank, there’s a kit in the bathroom under the sink.” He steps aside and gestures them in. 

It’s a nice place. Not very big, but comfortable and clean and obviously built in the last five years. Karen sinks into one of the dining room chairs. It squeaks a little as she draws it back. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I know it’s one in the morning."

Curtis waves off her apology. “Don’t you even start.” He settles in a chair beside Karen. “May I?"

She nods and he takes hold of her chin, looking into her eyes. Watching Curtis work brings back memories, and Frank almost shakes his head at the familiarity of it all. A member of the unit down and Curt piecing them back together. Only now their base camp is a New York apartment and they’re a team of three. 

Frank strides down the hallway, glancing through doorways until he finds the right room.

The first aid kit isn’t standard, but Frank didn’t expect it to be. There’s everything from an IV kit to a bone saw—and Frank knows that Curtis keeps it on hand for the same reason that Frank kept a safe with a pistol inside his family home: some habits can’t be left overseas. Frank sets it all on the dining room table and Curt nods a silent thanks. He cleans the cut along Karen’s scalp, then shines a small light into her eyes. “Ow,” she says. 

“You’ve got good pupils, very reactive.” Curtis sets down the penlight. “I don’t think you're concussed. But your shoulder’s definitely sprained.” 

“Go ahead and do whatever you need to,” Karen says wearily. 

Curtis nods. “Frank, there are some spare clothes in the guest bedroom. Mind grabbing a loose shirt? Something with short sleeves."

Frank nods and walks into the smaller of the two bedrooms. It’s little more than a closet with a bed and dresser. Frank pulls open a drawer, rummages until he finds a men’s t-shirt, and brings it back. Karen’s face is deathly pale, her teeth sinking into her lower lip. Frank realizes it’s because Curtis managed to get her out of that coat—which required moving her shoulder. Curtis picks up a pair of scissors. “I can do this or Frank can. But you really should have a clean shirt and no bra—it could restrict the swelling."

Karen glances at Frank. It’s answer enough. 

“I’ll get some clean sheets on the bed,” he says, rising. 

Frank takes his friend’s place with a nod of thanks to Curtis. 

The scissors are sharp enough that the blouse comes apart like cobwebs. Beneath is a simple gray bra, and Frank unlatches it carefully, helping slide the straps down Karen’s arms. She slips into the too-big shirt, her face stark with pain. Curtis returns with painkillers, something for the swelling, and a wrap for her arm. He ends up securing her shoulder and arm before he nods with satisfaction. “I’ll get you some water to take those pills with.” Curtis glances at Frank. “As for you, there are more spare clothes in the guest bedroom. Towels in the closet.”

The hint is a less than subtle one, but Frank decides to take it. He slips from the room, leaving Curtis to his work. And he does need a shower. The spray of hot water releases some of the tight muscles in his forearms and neck, and he leans into the warmth. He scrubs off the blood and the smoke and the river, fingers scraping over patches of bruised and broken skin. It hurts, but it’s the kind of hurt he needs—the reminder that he made it out. Part of him thought that there wouldn’t be anything after his war to avenge his family, but here he is. Alive, and relatively uninjured.

He dresses in sweats that are a little too long and a spare flannel shirt that Frank finds in the dresser. Karen is asleep on the couch, curled up so that her long legs will fit. Curtis is in the kitchen, washing his hands. When he hears Frank, he glances up and smiles. “She was out like a light after I finished,” he says. “She’s going to need to take it easy for a few weeks, but she’ll be fine.”

Frank nods. “Thank you. For all of this. I know it’s a risk—"

“Shut up,” says Curtis fondly. “Anything of yours I need to stitch up?”

“I’m fine, Curt.” Frank leans against the table. 

“You look like shit.” Curtis dries his hands on a kitchen towel then he stares at Frank. His arms crossed, face frowning—it’s just like the old days. They could be ten years younger, talking after a mission. But so much has happened in that time.

“What happened?” Curt asks simply.

Frank tells him everything. Curt has more than earned Frank’s trust. It takes about fifteen minutes, and when he’s finished, Curt looks stunned. “Schoonover—that dirty bastard. He was dealing on the side? How long?”

“No idea,” Frank says quietly, mindful of Karen on the couch. “He had me fooled, Curt. Some of the other guys were in on it—I recognized them at the docks.”

“Shit.” Curtis’s jaw flexes. “I never suspected a thing."

“Neither did I.” Frank rubs at his chin. “You think... I mean, I got the guys with Schoonover, but you think...?"

“Anyone else was in on it?” Curtis gives him a straight-forward look. “Probably. Drugs—they’re like mold in cheese. You can cut away what you see, but there’s more you can’t. I’ve seen a lot of vets dealing with it when they come back. Self-medicating, not selling. But as for our guys, I don’t know who it might have been. Couple of hours ago, I’d have said I trusted those guys we worked with. Now—now who knows?” He looks at Frank, his jaw tight. 

Frank gets it; he’s been dealing with the same sense of betrayal since he heard those familiar voices at the docks. His memories of serving are some of the best and worst of his life. He found friendships he would have died for—and places in himself that he still can’t look at, not straight-on. But the one constant he had through all of that time was that he could trust those he served with. Now even that certainty is gone. 

He hates that Schoonover managed to take even that from him. He took almost everything. 

But not quite.

Frank’s gaze flicks toward Karen. 

Curtis must see the look, because his posture relaxes. “You were right.”

“About?” Frank asks.

Curt nods at the sleeping woman on the couch. “Her. Back when you said you wanted me to go lawyer shopping for her. You said I’d like her. You were right.” Curt looks at him and there’s a depth of understanding and compassion that Frank could never hope to equal. “I know everything’s a mess, but I’m happy for you.”

Of course Curt would know. 

“You don’t think,” Frank says quietly, “that it’s too soon?”

“It’s been years,” Curtis says, gently. “And Maria—she loved you. She wouldn’t want you to die in that prison. She’d have wanted you to be happy, to live your life. It’s what you’d have wanted for her, if it’d been the other way around, right?”

“Yeah,” says Frank. 

Curt gives him a sharp, searching look. “You are gonna stick around, right? You’re not gonna pull some dramatic asshole move and—”

Frank lets out a hoarse laugh. “I’m not going anywhere, Curt.” He’s exhausted, that kind of bone-deep tiredness that makes him feel far too awake.

“Well, good,” Curtis says. “Because you know my apartment technically doesn’t allow—”

“I’ll deal with it.” Frank blinks a few times. The world is blurring now. He should get into bed before he crashes.

“Good, because this place is rent controlled. I refuse to get kicked out.” Curtis grins at him, good-natured ribbing finished.

Frank smiles in answer, then hauls himself upright. “Night, Curt.”

Curtis grasps his shoulder. Fingers tight, grip steady. “Goodnight, Frank.”

Frank goes to the couch. Karen is still, one hand pillowed beneath her cheek, lips slightly parted. He reaches down, carefully slipping an arm beneath her knees and back. It takes some effort to pick her up; his whole body aches from the fights of the last few days. But he carries her into the guest bedroom, trying not to jostle her shoulder.

The bedroom is dark and still. The bed is a twin, but that doesn’t matter. They’ve shared a narrow bed before. He settles her onto the mattress and she mumbles something. “Hey,” he says softly. “Sorry. Just me.”

“Mm.” She doesn’t seem awake enough to answer. She reaches for him and he wraps his arm around her, drawing her close. She tucks her face against his shoulder, and then he can tell she’s asleep again within moments. It takes longer for him to drift off. He hasn’t quite rid himself of the memory of driving toward Schoonover’s place, only to find Karen’s wrecked car. He remembers those first few moments when he wasn’t sure she was even alive, when he saw the unnatural slump of her head against the car door and the blood dripping from her cheek.

But she is. Whatever fucked up slant of the universe that made it so Frank has lost everyone he cares about—it’s been upended. He’s alive, and so is she, and everyone that had a hand in killing his family is dead. They’re all gone.

There will be other things to deal with. The matter of Karen’s car, the armory Frank found in the woods, the question of whether or not Frank is even legally alive, sorting out his new life if he isn’t, and—

There’s a lot of things to consider.

But not right now. Now there’s a dark room, soft blankets, and Karen’s breaths against his chest. He closes his eyes and settles into sleep.

The next morning, Karen looks a little better. She’s still pale with discomfort, but the dark shadows beneath her eyes have receded. They end up showering together. Frank helps as best he can, handing her the shampoo and soap; she still has her arm secured against her torso. But he finds himself running his hand across her back, her neck, her side, and she can’t seem to stop touching him, either. It isn’t about sex, but reassurance. Her fingers map out the lingering bruises and scabbed cuts across his body, but he barely notices them anymore. She kisses his shoulder, his throat, his jaw. Every press of lips feels like she’s making sure he is still there, like she’s reminding herself she can touch him. 

Soon, they’re dried off and in clean clothes; Curtis did laundry for them both, Frank sees with a wave of gratitude. He owes Curt more than he can ever repay.

They leave the bedroom, fingers still tangled together, to find Curtis flicking through channels on the tv. “Hey,” he says, standing. “You should know, looks like the police are claiming you’re dead. They’re not saying it on the news, of course, some of the bodies are so mangled they’re never going to figure out who’s who. And the new DA probably wants to bury this as much as the last one did. Congrats, man. You’re dead.”

“Good.” Frank goes to the coffeemaker and pours two cups. “No manhunt.”

“You’ll need a new identity,” says Curtis.

“I’ve got a name.” Frank sips at his coffee. “Of a forger, I mean. Hodges gave it to me. Said a man could never be too careful.” 

Karen inhales sharply. “He did?”

Frank looks at her. “Yeah. I don’t think he ever really anticipated me needing them, but he was always prepared. I’ll get in touch, see what kind of papers he can draw up.”

“That could get expensive,” said Curtis.

Frank nods. He’s been thinking about this. “Sell the house.”

Karen sputters into her coffee. “What?”

“Sell it,” says Frank. “We’ll split the take three ways.”

This time, both Karen and Curtis choke on their coffee. Curtis recovers first. “Frank, no. You don’t need to—”

“It’s technically your house, now,” says Frank. “Changed my will after… well. After. You’re probably going to get a call from a lawyer once I’m officially dead. You get everything, so you’re going to have to be the one to deal with the real estate agents and all that. Unless you want to live in it.”

Curtis looks stunned. “No—I mean. I like this place, and what am I going to do with a house?”

“All right, then,” says Frank. “We’ll sell it.”

Karen swallows, presses her fingertips her mouth. “Frank—I don’t need—”

“You’ve been cleaning it out,” says Frank. “Keeping it from growing mold.”

“Frank,” she says. “Do you even know what a house in New York sells for these days? I can’t take that much money.”

“What the hell do you think I need it for?” he says. “Save it. Hire Lucero a better lawyer. Or just buy really expensive shoes.”

Curtis puts his empty coffee cup into the sink and rinses it out. “Listen. I’ve got to go to work, so we’ll talk about it later. You two stay here. I mean it. You,” he glances at Karen, “need to rest and you,” a nod at Frank, “are still entirely too famous. Stay here, eat whatever’s in the fridge. I’ll bring back dinner.”

Frank nods at Curt. “Thanks, man.”

Curtis returns the nod. He doesn’t say much more, but Frank gets it. They’ve been friends long enough that they don’t have to say much aloud, not anymore.

After Curtis has gone, Karen goes to sit on the couch. She cradles her mug between her hands. “Frank,” she says, and he knows she’s about to protest. Karen has always been fiercely independent; she’s going to say that the house is his, she doesn’t need anything from him. So he leans in and kisses her. She tastes a little like coffee. It’s still a wonder that he can do this; he still half-expects to blink and still be in prison, a bullet-proof barrier between them both. They’re alone and there’s no danger, no rush. Just them.

He pulls away, but he leaves his hand at her cheek, thumb at the corner of her mouth.

“I meant what I said in the hotel room,” he says. He tries to make each word count, because he needs her to get this. “But if you—Karen, I get it. Things get all fucked up when adrenaline’s involved. If you want out of this, no questions asked, just tell me. But if you don’t—I was thinking maybe an apartment. Some place without bullet holes or the size of a stamp. That’s what I want the money for. Figuring my life out.” He clears his throat. “And if you want your own place, that’s fine. You probably want your own space. But I wouldn’t—I mean, if you want to, I wouldn’t mind—"

The corners of her mouth turn upward. “Are you insulting my apartment or asking me to move in?”

“I can multitask.”

“Not well,” she remarks. Her smile is so lovely that it almost hurts to look at. “Frank. Frank.” She shakes her head a little, and his callused fingers drag across her cheek. “It can’t be right away. The cops will probably be keeping an eye on me—or at least, Mahoney will be checking in. He’s the type who’ll want to make sure I’m okay.”

“That’s a yes, then?” he asks.

“Frank.” She says his name like it’s an answer in itself. And maybe it is. “Are sure about this?” 

He looks at her: morning sunlight in her hair, her face a little pale from pain, wearing an oversized shirt and borrowed pants. 

“Truth is,” he says, “I—I never thought I’d be here. Thought I’d bleed out in a graveyard after the Irish. After I lived through that, I thought someone in prison would get lucky. Most mornings, I’d wake up and almost hope for it.” 

She makes a pained sound, but his thumb strokes across her mouth. “Just let me say this,” he tells her. “I’m—Karen, I spent so much time waiting to die, I think part of me forgot how living worked. And then you came along and you were so furious and determined to stay alive and you—you just light up everything around you, sweetheart. You burn so goddamn bright. And even then, before everything—you made me want to survive. If only because I had to make sure you got out of there alive. You’re the only reason I’m still around. And fuck, I know that’s too much to put on you—"

She takes hold of his hand, gently kissing his palm. “You know you’re the only reason I’m around, too, right?"

“You’d have found a way,” he says. “Created alliances, made deals, done something."

She makes a slight noise of skepticism at the back of her throat. 

“I’m probably making a mess of this,” Frank says. He feels like what he wanted to say is all tangled up in the words, like he’s gone awry. But there’s one thing he truly wants her to know. “What I’m trying to say is—"

Karen’s mouth touches his. It’s a featherlight brush, a whisper of sensation. “I love you, too,” she says. 

It’s as simple as that. Warmth rushes through him, and a bit of relief, too. He leans in to kiss her again, but a sound makes him pull back. Karen hears it, too. There’s a clatter of something against hardwood coming from Curt’s bedroom.

“What was that?” asks Karen, frowning. Frank rises from the couch.

“There’s something you should know,” he says. “I—uh. Wasn’t the only one to stage a prison break.”

Karen goes still, her hands frozen around her cup of coffee. “Jesus. Did you kidnap Lucero?”

“No,” Frank says. “Although he’d have come with me, if I asked.”

“Then who…” Karen looks utterly baffled.

Frank pulls the door open.

There is the click of nails on the linoleum floor, and then a dog appears. She’s full grown, standing with her shoulders just above Frank’s knee.

Tansy sees Karen and begins bouncing in place, glancing between Frank and Karen, her body straining with joy. But she doesn’t move. It’s only when Frank says, “Good girl, Tans,” that the dog rushes forward, skidding to a halt in front of Karen and wriggling like a puppy again. Karen kneels down, putting her arms around the dog.

“I told Fisk to make sure his people dropped her off here,” Frank says. “I knew she’d be safe with Curt.”

Karen buries her face in Tansy’s fur for a few moments.

“You kidnapped our dog,” she says, and it sounds like she’s fighting back tears.

“Least of my crimes,” he says.

In the ensuing months, Frank finds himself living a new life.

His house is sold. It’s for the best. Curt sells the house to a nice family who promises to look after the place. The money is split three ways, which both Karen and Curt protest, but Frank won’t budge on. He uses a small fraction of his own share to purchase a new identity. Frank Castle is dead, but Pete Castiglione lives. He also pays for a new lawyer for Lucero. As far as the kid can know, Frank Castle died—but at least Frank can do that much for him. Karen goes to visit Lucero and returns with the news that the kid might be eligible for early parole.

They find an apartment that accepts dogs.

The apartment is a two-bedroom, and when they’re shopping for furniture, Frank asks if she wants one bed or two. He isn’t going to presume anything—but she gives him such a look of incredulity that he ends up laughing. Frank indulges in a king-sized mattress and the softest blankets he can find. It’s worth it to see Karen wrap herself up in a down comforter, stroking the sheets like she can’t quite believe they’re real.

Tansy gets her own bed and the dog is so pleased with it that she begins carrying it around the apartment.

Frank repaints the walls into a muted green that makes him think of old forests; Karen helps pick out the color. They’ve both had enough of white walls.

They spend a few days setting up the apartment; Karen gave away most of the clothes and toys and books, but she made sure to keep a few things that couldn’t be replaced. He finds a box with his commendations, some random CDs, Lisa’s copy of One Batch Two Batch, an antique watch that belonged to his dad, and a few other assorted possessions that he can sort through later. There’s also a large book that he doesn’t recognize.

“What is this?” he asks, picking it up.

“Oh,” says Karen, and she flushes. “I—I wasn’t sure what you’d think about that, actually. I found shoeboxes in one of the desks and—and I thought I’d sort things.”

He opens the book and—and it’s a photo album. The first picture he sees is of himself and Lisa, when she was only a few hours old. He looks far younger than he remembers and his smile is wide as he carefully holds the infant against his chest. The next picture is of Maria and himself at the house, having just signed the papers to buy it. He turns a page and finds more pictures—more than he ever remembers himself or Maria taking. There’s Lisa’s first birthday party and Frankie’s birth—which he wasn’t there for, but Maria made sure someone took pictures of Frankie a few hours afterward, all swaddled up in a hospital blanket. There are softball games and track events, pictures of Lisa beside a science fair volcano and Frankie jumping into a swimming pool. There are more than pictures: drawings, a report card, a letter that Maria had started and never finished. There are drawings and a few school reports.

It’s his family and their memories.

“I tried to sort by date,” says Karen quietly. She sounds hesitant. “Some of the years were written on the backs of pictures—others, I guessed at. If—if you don’t like it, I can put the pictures back where they were—”

“No,” says Frank, finally managing to speak. “This—this is perfect.”

He looks over the pictures with a bone-deep hunger, a gnawing in his gut he didn’t even realize was there. Lisa beams up at him from her softball picture. It hurts so damned much to look at her, but he can’t look away. It’s only when he blinks that he realizes there are tears in his eyes. He puts the book down so he won’t screw up the pictures. Karen takes it from him, setting the book on the bed.

“Living in that house,” she says. “I began to feel like I was getting to know them. Maybe that’s presumptuous—but I kind of grew attached. And… that probably sounds stupid—”

He cups her cheek and she goes silent.

“Like I said, they would have liked you, too,” he says and means it.

They settle into the new apartment. Frank finds a job working a demolition site and while it isn’t riveting, it’s a job. Karen freelances for a few different newspapers because the Bulletin can’t take her on full time. She clearly loves her work, and Frank likes seeing her do it—but sometimes he does wish she’d have taken on any other beat than crime. She says it’ll help her control the Bulletin’s narrative about the Punisher and other vigilantes, but he still takes precautions. He buys another gun, tucks it away inside of their closet where it can’t be easily found—but he’ll have it, if it’s needed. Tansy is a decent watch dog; she wags her tail and barks happily every time someone knocks on the door. Sure, that makes her a shitty guard dog, but Frank is glad that Tansy still loves people. It makes the world seem a little less terrible sometimes. He goes jogging with her in the mornings and it’s enjoyable to see her exploring new smells and places.

Frank lets his hair grow, and for the first time Karen sees what he looks like with a beard. It’s as good a disguise as any. Frank Castle kept his hair military short but Pete Castiglione has a beard and hair just long enough to curl.

“You look like a hot construction worker,” Karen says, grinning at him when he comes home one evening.

He frowns. “I can’t tell if that’s a good thing or not.”

“It’s a good thing.” She tilts her head the little she needs to kiss him. She doesn’t seem bothered by the beard, much to his relief.

They both still have nightmares. Karen admits she dreams of prison sometimes, of being entrapped in a place she can’t escape from. Frank has nightmares of the bedroom in his old house, of blood stained walls and kids laughing until someone puts a gun to their heads. There are times Frank has to pull away, to gather himself before he’s fit to be around anyone again. Karen understands—and she gives him that space, which he’s grateful for.

He isn’t sure they’ll stay in New York forever. Fisk will be a problem. Even if he never finds out that Karen killed his right hand man, Frank knows Fisk’s type. Fisk is not a man who will quietly stay shuttered behind bars; he will creep into the city like a mold and begin to gather his power again, imprisoned or not. There are moments when Frank thinks he should have just killed Fisk in that cell, but then he looks over at the blonde hair spilling across the pillow beside him, and he can’t regret his decision.

There are other concerns. Bill still doesn’t know Frank’s alive, and if Frank has anything to say about it, it’ll stay that way. He doesn’t want Bill getting dragged into his shit.

And then there’s Daredevil.

Who turns out to be Matt Murdock.

“I can’t believe Matt waited so long to tell me,” Karen says, after they’ve had a few beers. Her feet are tucked beneath Frank’s thigh; her bare toes are cold. He’s in sweatpants and she’s dressed in a terrycloth robe and cotton nightgown. His fingers play across her ankle, stroking up the strong line of her calf, then down again. “He was out there, beating up criminals, and he never told me. I thought he was an alcoholic. We were friends, I mean, I thought we were friends. But then he breaks up Nelson & Murdock, goes off to do his own thing with some ninja fight—and yes, I did just say actual ninjas, he told me about that—and then he has the balls to just ask me to coffee today, open his backpack, show me the mask and whisper, ‘I’m Daredevil.’ The only reason I didn’t throw my coffee in his face was because—”

“You can’t waste good coffee,” says Frank, amused despite himself.

“Exactly,” Karen says. “I just—I just can’t believe it. No, I can. Which is worse, because this explains so much. The bruises, the broken off appointments, the mysterious conversations.”

“You have a knack for befriending vigilantes,” Frank replies.

“You didn’t run around in costume,” she says flatly.

He takes a swig of his beer. “I do have some pride.”

It complicates things, knowing that Matt Murdock is Daredevil. It does explain why Daredevil came for Frank on the boat, why he tried so hard to get Frank to safety. Murdock must have known Karen cared about Frank. Or maybe he just thought it was the right thing to do. But it also clearly upsets Karen, who takes the untruths with predictable bad temper.

“Maybe he just wanted to keep you out of his shit,” says Frank. He can understand that, at least.

“Then maybe he shouldn’t have tried to date me and then slept with his ninja ex-girlfriend while also starting a war with some magical Yakuza gang.” She makes a face. “And I can’t believe I’m even uttering that sentence."

“Your life is a little screwy sometimes, sweetheart."

She nudges his thigh with her toes. “My life is screwy? Mine? I am a perfectly respectable reporter."

His fingers skim up her calf, to a sensitive spot at the back of her knee. “Perfectly respectable?"

Her cheeks flush. “Maybe not perfectly,” she murmurs, and pulls off her robe. In a moment, she’s in his lap and the beers are forgotten. His hands glide up her back, feeling the strength of the muscles and soft skin. She kisses him with a kind of playful hunger, an eagerness that has him hardening beneath her. He toys with one strap of the nightgown, teasing her by almost pulling it down, then sliding his hand up her neck, cupping her jaw to kiss her harder. She moans softly and part of him is wondering if they should just skip the bed and have sex on the couch. They’ve christened nearly every other place in the apartment from the shower to the kitchen table to up against the fridge. He’s had to train Tansy to go into another room so they can get a little privacy.

But something prickles on the back of his neck. An awareness. Only a former sniper would have the instincts to look. Frank glances up and sees the vaguest outline of something on the opposite roof. His heartbeat picks up, but he can’t be sure. 

He doesn’t want to alarm Karen, not without proof. “Bedroom,” he murmurs. “I’m gonna make sure the doors are locked for the night."

Karen kisses him one last time, then slides off of his lap. Her fingertips very deliberately brush the inside of his thighs as she moves, and she gives him an unrepentant grin as she walks to the bedroom, a jaunty little sway to her hips. It takes everything in him not to follow.

Frank waits until she’s in the bedroom, then he goes to the desk and picks up an old rifle scope. He edges up to the window, keeping out of the line of fire, then looks through the lens. 

All he can see is the distant shape of horns.

Frank closes the curtains, then goes into the bedroom. 

He hears her scream.

He has been half-expecting it, because Tansy isn’t used to icy sidewalks. She skids on a slippery patch, tries to right herself, then hits Karen in the back of the knees. Karen goes over backwards into the snow, landing with a shriek. She sits up, already laughing at the expression on Tansy’s face. The poor dog keeps glancing at the ground as if wondering why it has betrayed her.

“Oh, you poor thing,” Karen laughs, reaching out to rub Tansy’s ears. 

Frank reaches down and helps her stand, then she wriggles in place, trying to dislodge the snow. “I told you we should’ve just walked her around the parking lot.”

“Come on,” Karen says, grinning at him. “She’s never seen snow before. We had to come here.”

Tansy is looking at the snow with fascination. She sniffs a fresh patch, then tries to nudge it. The soft powder clings to her nose and she sneezes loudly.

The park is all but deserted on a cold February morning. But there’s a coffee stand nearby and a bench that doesn’t look all that icy. Frank has a hat pulled down over his ears, and Karen wears a pale blue winter coat. Her hair is longer, shining beneath her coat’s hood. There’s a flush on her cold cheeks, and she’s grinning at him as she kneels to make a snowball. She tosses it to Tansy, who tries to catch it. The ball disintegrates as soon as the dog tries to bite it. Tansy looks confused, which only makes Karen laugh harder. 

“I’m going to get us some coffee,” she says, giving Frank the leash. “Maybe a hot dog for Tansy. Sound good?”

He catches her before she walks away. A hand at the small of her back, his mouth warm against her wind-chilled cheek.

“Yeah,” he says. “Sounds good.”