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second chances

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It feels like a punch to the gut, wind sucked straight out of her lungs.

Frank.

She wasn’t sure how much time had passed since she’d last seen him, face caked with blood and body resembling that of a broken man. However, she’d replayed the moment time and time again in her mind, sometimes in a daydream as she struggled to finish a last-minute piece for Ellison, and other times visiting her unexpectedly in her sleep, aligning with the narrative but switching out the ending. Sometimes they stood in the elevator, clinging to something that felt like hope, but altogether coming back to their senses to put whatever this was on the back burner. But other times, she was completely alone in the elevator, hands covered in his blood, screaming, but knowing he wouldn’t be coming back. Not this time, and most definitely, never again.

Over and over and over again…

Things had shifted after that day, initially. Ellison ripping her a new one for acting so recklessly on air, followed with begging her to take time off to readjust. Coworkers sending cards and flowers to her apartment, wishing her well and eager for her to return back to The Bulletin. Even Foggy had invited her out to dinner at some five-star restaurant with prices so far out of her range that she’d nearly choked on her drink when he’d made the suggestion. Kind gestures and thoughtfulness made her feel a little less alone, but like always, it was only temporary. The police stopped hammering her for details. She returned back to work. People forgot about Frank Castle, again. And everything fell back into place.

Alone, alone, alone.

She stood at the doorway, unable to catch her breath. It had been weeks, maybe even months since the last time they’d crossed paths. There was no promise to see one another again and no way of knowing whether or not he was alive. He could have died just outside the hotel or he could have died weeks later, caught-up in the crossfire of places he shouldn’t have been in. There were a million and one scenarios that could have occured, and Karen was certain that she’d played out every single one of them when the thought infiltrated her mind. But nobody knew where he was, and frankly, they didn’t care. The world moved on, forcing Karen back into the swing of things whether she liked it or not.

However, this time, blood wasn’t trailing down his neck, escaping from where a bullet had grazed the side of his head. Shrapnel didn’t stick out from a dislocated arm. They weren’t escaping reality in an elevator, knowing that law enforcement would be waiting on the other side. Here he was, face not painted in black and blue for once, and physically, he looked unharmed. His expression wasn’t one of panic per se, but Karen struggled to pin down the emotion on his face—sadness, relief, pain perhaps, but above all, it looked like fear. Fear that he would knock on the door, but that she would refuse to let him back into her life. Maybe he deserved that though—she didn’t owe him anything. He’d done his damage and knew that re-entering her life whenever he wanted wasn’t fair to her, to them.

They stood facing each other for what felt like hours, both struggling to find the words to say how they felt, holding their breath in anticipation to see who would make the first move. Both stubborn, hard-headed, trying to find some kind of balance in light of knocking one another off course. Frank knew it would hurt Karen, knew that he would break her, eventually, whether that meant he stayed out of her life permanently or if he showed up to her doorstep unannounced. That much he knew was inevitable. However, the worst part about it was that Frank knew that if he truly needed help, Karen would do whatever she could without batting an eyelash. And he hated that because even though he would do the absolute same for her, imposing on her life like that wasn’t right. Karen deserved better than that, better than him.

But instead of slamming the door in his face, she welcomed him with open arms, wrapped so tightly that he swore he couldn’t breathe. And he knew he didn’t deserve this, but as his arms circled around her torso and he breathed in the faintest scents of lavender and jasmine, any force of reason was immediately tossed out the window.

I want there to be an after. For you.

It felt like the first time they’d reunited, Karen letting him into her space without hesitation. The warmth and touch was something he’d long forgotten, but there was always a hint of frigidness, something all too familiar.

We are all lonely. I sometimes think that is all that life is. We’re just fighting not to be alone.

“I thought you died, Frank…I thought I lost you...”

And then it hits him, all at once.

///

It’s the second time he’s set foot in her space, but the first time he’s entered without a war sitting in the back of his mind. He’d scanned the unfamiliar place the first time around, but this time, he made an attempt to take everything in. A bookshelf stacked with classic novels to books on law, pieces of artwork adorning nightstands, a handful of framed photographs, some with the blonde lawyer friend, others with people he didn’t know. This was Karen’s life put on display, and here she was, welcoming him in.

Back facing him, Karen started the coffee maker, filling the glass carafe with water to the brim. It was all muscle memory, something habitual to try to keep her hands busy while her mind raced. Neither of them wanted to address the elephant in the room, so they remained silent, trying to find ways to pass the time. Frank watched from across the counter as she reached for two coffee mugs, startled when one of them slipped from her grip, sending shards of glass flying across the tile. As he rushed over to help clean up, he hesitated when he noticed her, one hand gripping tightly on the edge of the counter while the other covered a muffled sob.

“Why…why didn’t you call?”

He had expected this, knew that Karen would be upset that they’d gone so long without contacting one another. While he wanted to stop by, he knew they both weren’t ready. The incident in the hotel was still raw, and Frank knew they both needed their space and time to heal. Even though he’d kept an eye on her apartment, taking notice of the potted roses on the windowsill, he continued to make up excuses. Perhaps she’d put the flowers out for sunlight or maybe she had simply forgotten about them, even when they had been left out for an entire week straight.

So where does that end, Frank? Because I look at you, and my heart breaks because all I can see is just this endless, echoing loneliness.

The thing was that Karen had been right. No bullshit, no sugarcoating, just the raw, simple truth that Frank had repressed time and time again. She’d been right, because he got what he wanted—Rawlins was dead, the truth had been exposed, and Frank had been able to avenge his family. He’d gotten good at pushing the thought of there being an after for him away, claiming he didn’t have time to think about those kinds of things. But now, he had time. Pete Castiglione was a free man—this much he knew—but what was he supposed to do with his loneliness now? The thought rang through his mind like an echoing gunshot, forcing him to ponder what getting a second chance actually meant, and whether someone like him was even capable of starting over and making something of himself.

If you’re going to look at yourself, really look in the mirror, you gotta, yeah, you gotta admit who you are. But not just to yourself, you gotta admit it to everybody else. First time, as long as I can remember, I don’t have a war to fight. And I guess, if I’m gonna be honest, I just...I’m scared.

Karen had been that voice of reason, making him face his fears head on and look at himself in the mirror. He squirmed under her gaze, feeling small and suffocated as the room began to feel as if it were shrinking, but somehow all the while felt safe.

“I—I needed time, Karen. Needed to figure things out.” He hesitated, shifting his weight from one foot to the next, “I figured you needed time, too.”

Karen nodded her head, pursing her lips. He wasn’t necessarily wrong, they needed time apart from one another to reassess. But after not hearing from him even when she had put the flowers out on display, she began to fear the worst.

“You know, you were right.”

Karen’s eyes shot up, a mixture of shock and confusion spanning across her face.

“Right? About—about what, Frank?”

“About all of it. I got what I wanted, yeah? They’re, uh, they’re gone, but that doesn’t…” Frank hesitated, eyes shifting across the room, trying to ground himself. “...it didn’t fix anything, Karen. And I’m scared.”

There was something about saying it out loud—the fear that had been sitting on the back burner for god knows how long. What Frank said didn’t necessarily roll off his tongue easily. If anything, it sounded completely foreign to Karen. The last thing she had ever wanted from any of this was to be able to say ‘I told you so,’ yet, here they were. At the end of the day, she knew she had been right—the truth hurt immensely—but she was certain that they had both known that Frank wouldn’t come out of this unharmed, physically or mentally.

“I’ve been talking about it, though. Old friend of mine, back from the marines, runs this uh, group with a handful of former soldiers. We talk, listen. It helps.” Frank glanced down at his hands, fiddling his thumbs as he tried to formulate his next thought. “I just, I’ve got this second chance, you know? And I’m so fucking scared to screw it up again. I mean, shit Karen, look at me. I couldn’t protect them, and what if—what if that’s just who I am? What if I don’t deserve that, yeah? Not worthy of having something decent in my life again without messing everything up.” Frank’s breathing accelerated, and as he choked on his words, he stopped trying to keep his tears from spilling over. The walls he so often kept up came crumbling down, and even though he probably looked twice as bad as he felt, for some god forsaken reason, Karen didn’t seem to care.

“We don’t get to pick our battles, Frank. I think that what happened in the past was…was bigger than just you. Sure, they used your family to get to you, but your wife and kids…their deaths? That wasn’t on you. In an alternate universe, sure, they would still be here, but no matter how you spin it, you’re never going to be the one responsible for what happened to them. I may not have known them, but I know they loved you, Frank. I’d do anything to take the burden of what happened that day away from you. But at the end of it all, I don’t think it necessarily has to define you.” Karen stepped closer, placing one hand on his shoulder and the other on his cheek, ever so gently as if she were afraid he would flinch and run away.

“You were given a second chance because you deserve it, Frank.”

Frank locked eyes with Karen, finding the statement hard to believe, yet still sensing some kind of truth underneath it all.

One thing I know is that the only way out is to find something that you care about.

Have you found something to do that for you?

Maybe, yeah. Maybe.

He wasn’t sure what his relationship was with Karen. Friends perhaps, but even that seemed like an odd label for whatever this was. He cared about her, and the feeling appeared to be mutual, but there was still so much that was left unsaid. But there was something about being with her where he felt comfortable enough to let his walls come down, shedding away the fake image of being fine that he so constantly projected. It was like speaking without a filter, not having to walk on eggshells, allowing himself a giant sigh of relief. Perhaps a bit ironic coming from a man who so constantly played judge, jury, and executioner, but valid nonetheless. He rarely had felt this way before, and although it was easy to get lost in the intoxication of it all, he knew he had to be careful. Had to be careful with her.

Frank nodded, resting his forehead against Karen’s.

“Okay. Yeah, okay.”