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She recognizes the handwriting as soon as she sees it. She knows the distinct slant and precise spacing between the letters. The napkin is clean and creased. She lightly, almost absently, drags her fingers over the letters. It isn’t hard to imagine him shifting anxiously on the sidewalk outside of the Bulletin trying to convince himself that they can do this again.

Not that she knows what this is anyway. 

She has three days to decide if she wants to show up. It takes less than five minutes for her to decide that she will. Her feelings about it don’t materialize until she is staring out at the river and calculating how fast she would have to swing to slap him without missing.

She muses on it for nearly five minutes. It could all be fairly reasonable.  He could agree to it, give her a good shot. She would be quick about it. If Frank keeps a running scale of pain, and he probably doesn’t at this point, her slap wouldn’t even register. It would just make her feel better, give some release to the bristled anger that sits plastered against her chest.

The sole of his boots scrape against the ground as he walks up. It must be for her benefit. He had probably gotten there long before she had. She keeps her eyes on the water but hears the creak of the bench next to her as he leans against it. They stay like this for a moment and his stare is leaden against the side of her face. She waits him out. He leaves space between them when he sits down.

“Ma’am.”

She turns. A laugh tumbles from somewhere deep in her stomach. He blinks as she turns away from him to cover her mouth. When she turns back he’s got an eyebrow raised in question.

“Figured you’d slap me or somethin’. Can’t say I saw the laugh coming.”

This produces another single huff of laughter. She shakes her head and lets her smile fall. She gives him the obligatory once over because, yes, she does want to slap him but, more than that, she wants him to be okay. 

“I see you’re blending in nicely.”

His hand moves to his beard and tugs on it a little. She doesn’t smile even though she wants to. Nothing about this should be endearing.  

“It is kind of long, yeah?”

She just watches him for a bit longer before turning back to the water. The wind is just shy of too cold and she folds her arms to retain some heat. She can see the outline of him in her periphery. He leans forward to rest his elbows on his knees and watches her. He ducks his head, in that way he does, silently urging her to look at him. She lets out a steadying breath before meeting his eyes.

“Wasn’t sure you’d show,” he says, low and thick. 

“Why?”

He looks in front of him. Shifts a bit. He turns back to see that she’s still watching him, waiting.

“Didn’t end things too good last time I saw you.”

“You think so?”

He makes a noise in the back of his throat. Something like an agreement. She hums lightly and distractedly massages where the skin of her forehead had split open that night. She almost expects to see blood when she realizes what she’s doing and pulls her hand away. She tucks the hand back against her side.

“I remember the last thing I said to you,” she says.

He keeps quiet but she knows he remembers too. He remembers what he said to her in return, knows how it must have frightened her to hear that gunshot echo through the woods. What he doesn’t know is that she had sunk to the ground and wept in the cold until she couldn’t feel anything. Then she had gotten up and hobbled back to the main road to get help.

“Ma’am. “

“Frank.”

Something in her voice makes him pause. He gets that she’s working up to something. He shifts and tenses like he’s waiting for her to actually slap him and it makes her insides swell with something like power.

“What you are—who you are—is just that. That’s you. That night, with the Blacksmith, I made that about me too. I shouldn’t have. I didn’t even know that’s what I was doing— “

“Listen— “

“No. You listen. Don’t ever use me as bait again. I’m sorry for saying you were dead to me and for making you carry shit that had nothing to do with you. That’s on me, Frank. But that shit in the diner? That was on you and never again. Never.”

She holds his gaze because she has to. She inhales through her nose and out through her mouth slowly because fuck she needs air.

His brows shift together. Then he's nodding softly and steadily to some internal dialogue that is likely far beyond her reach. He stares at her like she’s the scariest amalgamation of a friend and stranger he could conjure up.

His taps his finger against his hand, once bruised and broked but now healed over. He turns to look at the water for a beat and then back at her, swallows dry. He nods once more.

"Never again,” he says.  

His yielding defuses her enmity. She stares at him to make sure he understands and he stares back so that she knows that he does. After a while, she nods. She still doesn’t know why he asked her here but she trusts that he won’t hide anything from her. He hesitates.

“I heard about Murdock. I’m sorry, ma’am.”

That nasty, hideous feeling settles into her gut. It pulsates something fierce and her stomach rolls. She has to take another deep breath and the cold helps a little. She wonders how he “heard” about Matt.

“I’m assuming you knew?” she asks and doesn’t specify.

He doesn’t hesitate.

“Yeah.”

“Even in the diner?”

He clears his throat. 

“Yeah.”

She laughs but it lacks the bitterness she expects.

“You motherfucker.”

He just takes it in. She sighs because now she doesn’t have any anger left to throw at him and she isn’t sure how much of her anger was even for him or about him. She slumps against the back of the bench.

“Why am I here, Frank?”

The switch is sudden. Any approximation of self-loathing disappears to make room for the fury she had come to associate with his moniker, with him. His mouth sets into a hard line as his jaw tightens.

“My family. It wasn’t an accident.”

She knows this already. She had been with him that night in the woods, not too far behind as Schnoover taunted him.

“The Blacksmith?”

He shakes his head urgently.

“No. Bigger than him. This whole thing is big, Karen.”

It’s the first time he has ever used her name. She has never really given thought to the circumstances under which he would but she finds that she doesn’t care. It just rolls out of him as easily as ma’am does.

“Tell me.”

His eyes aren’t wild like she expects them to be. Insistent, yes, but not wild. In fact, for someone at the heart of some convoluted conspiracy, he seems more centered than she has ever seen him.

“Can’t. Not here. Will you look into something for me?”

She already knows she will. A peculiar sort of composure comes over her. Because this she can do. Research. Finding stuff that people want to keep hidden? Yeah. She can do this.

“Okay.”

“Just like that?”

“Can’t have it both ways. Don’t ask me to do it and then try to convince me not to. Do you want it or not?”

He hesitates.

“Karen, this shit is big and dangerous as fuck— “

She sighs. Loudly. Obnoxiously, even.

“Skip this part. I get it. You want my help or not?”

He refuses to back down.

“This is life-threatening shit I’m talking about." 

She gives him a look.

“It’s you. I assumed as much.”

He shakes his head in frustration and turns away from her.  He goes back to leaning forward on his elbows, thinking. She settles back against the bench and waits. She wishes he had brought her something warm to drink. Professional courtesy and all that. She’s still thinking about it when he turns back to her.

“I do need your help. Doesn’t mean I can’t care about your safety too.”

She sighs. She can concede to that. Frank is more than capable of handling himself and she has found herself worried about his well-being on more than one occasion.

“It’s just research right?”

The suspicion is evident in his scrutiny. His trust in her ability to be content with just doing one thing is obviously low. He nods slowly.

“Yeah.”  

“What am I looking for?”

He reaches into the pocket of his hoodie and pulls out a folded envelope. He slides it to her. She puts it into her purse without looking at it. 

“How do I reach you?”

He nods towards her bag. She understands. She stands without preamble.

“Bring me tea next time. Something herbal. It’s cold as fuck out here, Frank.”

She feels the weight of his gaze as she walks away.

___

She buys an entirely separate notebook for this because she knows, she just fucking knows. She starts at the Bulletin’s archives. There was no shortage of coverage from the war in Iraq. She makes copies of everything but the names on her list never show up. Of course, they don’t. But she’s not looking for those names. Not really. She is only looking for one name.

Kandahar.

She needs a source. The chances of Ellison knowing at least one is high but Ellison would ask too many questions and she doesn’t have reasonable enough answers. Not yet. She needs complete discretion. 

That’s she ends up in front of a door that clearly has had work done to it recently. She knocks and hearts a muttered curse and a chair scraping against the floor. The door swings open.

“I’m busy— “

Jessica Jones pauses when she recognizes the blonde standing at her door. She raises an eyebrow, checks behind Karen to make sure nobody else is with her. Karen can’t be sure but she seems just the tiniest bit softer.

“What are you doing here, blondie?" 

“Can I come in?”

Jessica looks over Karen’s shoulder again. Then she motions for her to come inside. Karen does. There’s a laptop open on a desk in what Karen assumes to be the living room.

“Want a drink?” Jessica asks.

Karen shakes her head. 

“Tempting but no.”

Jessica shrugs and pours herself one. Then she sits in the chair behind the desk and motions for Karen to sit as well. Jessica observes her from behind her glass. Karen just stares back. Jessica puts the glass down and shifts uncomfortably in her chair.

“I’m not here to talk about Matt if that makes you feel better,” Karen says.

“Wasn’t he your boyfriend?” Jessica asks, bluntly.

Karen shifts uncomfortably. 

“That ended a while before he died.”

“Sorry about that,” Jessica says, softly this time.

Karen narrows her eyes.

“About him dying or about him not being my boyfriend?”

Jessica rolls her eyes. 

“You said it had been a while, right? Obviously, not about you guys breaking up." 

Karen knows that she likes Jessica with all her sharp edges and blunt words. She wonders what would happen if Jessica and Frank ever met.

“I need your investigative skills,” Karen says.

Jessica raises an eyebrow.

“Aren’t you an investigative reporter now?”

“This isn’t for work and I need your complete discretion. I’ll tell you what I can so that you’ll know what you might be getting yourself into but if you decide not to help me you can tell no one about this.”

Jessica leans back in her chair and finishes her drink. She scoffs loudly.

“Jesus Christ, what the hell are you up to, blondie?”

Karen tells her. Not all of it. She includes the part about military conspiracy because that part is important. She leaves out the part about Frank because she feels strangely solicitous of him.

Jessica whistles.

“This sounds like a shit storm.”

Karen nods.

“I just need information. I’m trying to get as much as I can without getting too close to it. Just trying to help out a…an acquaintance.”

Jessica looks skeptical at the term ‘acquaintance’.

“What are you looking for exactly?”

“A source. Military experience from that time. Someone who knows someone who will talk.”

Jessica sits completely still for a few seconds. She watches Karen closely. 

“Why do you think I can help you? And don’t say it’s because I’m a PI.”

Karen just stares. Jessica Jones is sharp. Karen can appreciate that. She does appreciate that.

“Some of the story is that there was a paramilitary group involved in the stuff with Kilgrave.” 

“That’s the story huh?” 

Karen nods, no subterfuge.

“Is it true?”

Jessica frowns. She really is a lot like Frank, Karen thinks. She wonders if Frank drinks because they would be good drinking buddies. That is if they managed to not kill each other first. Frank could be a mean son of a bitch but her money is on Jones.

“Who the hell is this acquaintance you’re helping?”

Karen shakes her head.

“Off limits. That’s the deal." 

“There is no deal cause I haven’t gotten paid.”

Karen pulls out her wallet but holds onto it. She leans back in the chair. She waves it.

“Can you help me?”

Jessica taps her nails against the scarred desk. The longer Karen looks at her the more she thinks of Matt. He had spent the last days of his life running around the city with the woman sitting across from her. She knows that the slippery feeling threatening to leave its cage and consume her cannot be satiated by asking Jessica about Matt. Still, the temptation looms and she thinks Jessica extricates that even without words.

God, she reminds Karen of Frank.

“I’ll see what I can do, blondie.”

And she does. She really does. A week later Karen is meeting with a man who looks terrified of her and he shouldn’t be because the man is built to wreck. He has Frank by a good five inches and is just as solid. She wonders what Jessica said or did and how she found him because he talks. He fucking talks.

He has no idea about the names on her list but he knows about some of the shit that was sanctioned in Kandahar. He knows this privileged intel because he knows some guy named Russo who is running another paramilitary organization that is bringing in major cash. The shit he tells her makes her skin crawl and she leaves their meeting nauseated and with her hand resting against the gun in her purse.

She writes furiously when she gets home, trying to piece together what she knows so far. Frank was right. This is big. This was bigger than anything she had ever been a part of.

She stares at the number to reach him for nearly two hours before she uses it.

___

He remembers to bring her tea. She takes it and wraps her hands around the paper cup for warmth. His eyes go to her bag and the folder just barely protruding from it.

“Tell me what you did in Kandahar.”

His eyes go to her face. He searches. His jaw clenches and she remembers that look, remembers the way he had turned to her when she had asked him something similar that night with the Blacksmith. He looks away from her but only for a moment. When he looks back his expression is flat.

He tells her all of it. His telling of the truth is as unceremonious and uncompromising as he normally is. She had given herself two rules before she came. She could not make excuses for him and she would never look away from him. So she never looks away from him.

“So you were essentially a government-sanctioned assassin?”

“I was a fucking hitman.”

It was a such a Frank thing to say.

“This program was instituted before you enlisted right?”

He nods.

“So they’ve been getting away with this long before you. You subverted it and now you’re a loose end.”

His expression darkens and she wonders if this is the last thing his enemies see.

“No, they’re loose ends.”

“But even if you kill the specific men responsible for your family they can keep doing this to people.”

He looks at her then, really looks at her. His brows furrow and then shoot up. He shakes his head vehemently. 

“No.”

“People need to know, Frank.”

He steps away from her and she can see his body thrumming with aggravation. He locks his hands behind his head and steps even further away from her. Then he’s pulling his hands down to gesticulate wildly. 

“Did you hear what I just said to you?”

His voice is quiet but urgent, harsh.

“I heard everything you said.” 

“They will kill you, Karen. They killed my family.” 

The mention of his family does not produce fear but it does yield something despondent in her. She wants to close her hand around the arm that he’s thrown out randomly. She wants to pull him toward her and she doesn’t fully understand why. Maybe it has something to do with her own alienation, the silence of her apartment when she goes home at night. Maybe it’s about him too and the profound relief she feels to see him again.

“You don’t have to keep me safe, Frank.”

He looks horrified at the suggestion.

“What do you mean I don’t need to keep you safe? My family is dead because of what I know. That’s not happening to you.”

She shakes her head because she needs him to understand. She needs him to.

“It should never have happened to your family. It shouldn’t happen to anyone else’s.”

He shakes his head because she sees that he wants her to understand too.

“It can’t happen to you.”

The tears are flowing before she even knows that they are and she turns away from him. This is only their second time with each other in nearly a year and they’re already in too deep. Again. Of course, the tears are for more than him because she has so much trying to claw its way out of her that she can barely breathe.

She doesn’t know what to say so she hands him the file in her bag. He just looks between the file and her tears for a few moments before taking it. She wipes furiously at her face.She mentions the name Russo. His head snaps up to her.

“How do you know that name, Karen?”

She tells him about her interview and what she has learned in the last week. His tension mounts with every word. At some point, he looks at her funny.

“How did you even get to this guy?”

“A friend. Sort of. Very loosely. Not really.”

He raises an eyebrow. 

“So not a friend.”

“Really, Frank?”

He gives her a look. 

“They don’t know anything about you.” 

He frowns.

“That’s not what I’m worried about.”

It clicks. He's worried about whether she can trust them. He's worried about her own safety. She debates whether or not to tell him. She sighs.

“She was a friend of Matt’s. Kind of. Jessica Jones.”

His look softens at the mention of Matt. Her throat constricts to have him look at her like that. She wants to tell him to stop because it’s not fair for him to have left for months and then come back look at her that way.

“The PI?”

She nods and fills him in on why she sought out Jessica in the first place. He listens with his hands stuffed into the pockets of his coat. He nods periodically.

“Heard she was hella strong,” Frank says.

He seems more impressed than bothered that she went to Jones. He would be. Karen takes a sip of her tea.

“Apparently.”

He sighs.

“What I said earlier hasn’t changed, ma’am.”

“So that puts us at an impasse. What are we going to do?”

He shakes his head.

“Karen. Please.”

“You asked me for help.”

“And you’ve helped, ma’am.”

She tosses her tea in a nearby trash. She holds out her hand. He looks at it in confusion.

“Paid Jessica $300 for that intel. I’m expensing it to the company account.”

Frank continues to stare at her hand.

“Thought she did you a favor.”

“I never said that. I said she was a friend of Matt’s.”

He looks from her hand to her face.

“The company account?”

“We’re partners now.”

His eyebrows draw together. She takes a step towards him. He looks tempted to take a step back.

“$300.”

The distress is evident in his face but he reaches into his back pocket and pulls out a wad of cash. Her eyes widen. He pulls off five bills and hands them to her.

“This is too much.”

He shrugs. 

“For your pain and suffering, ma’am.”

“Where did you even get this?”

“Work.”

“Are you trying to pay me to stay away from this?”

“Would that work?”

She flips him off. His sigh rumbles out of him.

“Didn’t think so.”

___

He stops fighting her about it but she can sense his reluctance every time they meet up after that. She sees it in the way his eyes never stop moving when they’re together because he has to make sure. When they aren’t working he asks her about her job and she tells him about it. He surprises her by smiling just a little.

“Suits you.”

Eventually, he starts showing up with bruises again and most of her hates it. She really does. A smaller part of her feels like laughing because it, at the very least, is familiar territory. Once, he shows up at her apartment and she just presses an ice pack to his face without comment. He knows her new place well enough to make himself some coffee.

___

She catches on pretty quickly that Frank has a friend. Or something like it. He has to be getting his information from somewhere. His burner vibrates sometimes when they find themselves together.

Micro, Frank calls him when she finally asks him about it. Frank precludes a lot of the details but she gathers that Micro is just as entangled in this as Frank is. It takes her a little longer to piece together that Frank is actually staying with the guy and that is something. She had been trying to figure out where he was staying and he had been evasive about it. 

The Punisher has a roommate no matter what he says.

"That's not what it is."

"You guys live together."

"It's a hideout, ma'am."

She pulls her coat tighter around her. His eyes flick towards the movement. They linger as she settles back against the railing.

"Do you both sleep there?"

He looks back towards the river. His nose scrunches as a gust of particularly cold wind rushes past.

"It's ain't some bachelor pad."

"Of course not."

He looks at her like he doesn't trust her concession and he shouldn't. She's definitely putting him on. Frank Castle has a roommate even if he doesn't want to admit it. There's something about the whole thing that makes her feel airy.

"What's he like?" she asks.

He gives her a look that borders on incredulity. She purses her lips to keep the smile at bay. He shakes his head.

"Didn't come here to talk about Micro."

She shrugs.

"Like to keep your friends separate. I get it."

"Micro ain't my friend."

She smiles.

"Am I?"

A pause. He doesn't say anything and she assumes it's because he's chosen to stop indulging her altogether. Her smirk fades when she finds that he's watching her. His eyes do a slow sweep of her face and his jaw tightens. 

Oh. 

"I was just--"

"You're my friend."

He says the word like he's sampling it for the first time and isn't sure about the taste. He tilts his head just so. Then he looks away.

"Am I, uh—” he fidgets against the railing “—am I your friend?”

She blinks at the question and the slow drawl of his voice. She turns to look at him. His lips are lifted marginally but there's something in his eyes that's more earnest. 

"Do you want to be my friend?"

His head swivels to her. He searches her face for any sign of jest. She raises an eyebrow and waits. Then he chuckles softly because of course she would turn this around on him, make him own it. Then he's reaching out and wrapping a hand around her elbow. He pulls until she presses against his side. She instantly feels warmer and she guesses that was his point.

"Yeah."

She tries not to smile but she does anyway.

"Then you're my friend."

He watches her for a bit longer. Then he gives a satisfied nod, short and decisive.  He rests his chin on this arms and watches the water ebb and flow. She leaves him be. Until she doesn't. 

"You have a roommate."

"Dammit, Page, really?”

___

Frank has a roommate no matter what he says about it. Frank also has a dog. A dog. Karen knows this because he shows up for coffee (hot chocolate for her) with it. The dog wraps itself around her legs, tail wagging, and she laughs in surprise.

"What's your name?" she asks as she kneels down. 

Frank hands her the leash so she won’t get tangled up.  

"Queen.”

She blinks.

"Like the band?”

His nose wrinkles.

“No.”

She looks down to hide her smile because has this recent habit of making her smile at little shit like this.

"Where did we find Queen?"

He tells her about the unsavory men Queen had belonged to before and the rather unfortunate life she might have led. He does not tell her exactly what befell the men but she isn't interested in the details of it and she can guess. She knows what he can be like, what he is like. Karen looks back down at the sweet dog who is still attached to her shins.

"Well, she’s obviously doing much better now."

Frank shrugs, big shoulders shifting towards his generous ears. She looks at his face to gauge his mood. He is going for nonchalant but she can see the fondness behind his lazy stare. Frank adores this fucking dog. 

Jesus.

She occupies herself with rubbing Queen’s large head. She'll have fur all over her jeans when she's done but she doesn't care. Frank has a dog and she's positive, only a few minutes in, that he loves the damn thing.

"Did you have a dog growing up?"

The question surprises him, she can tell. His trigger finger twitches as he looks around. When he looks back down at her he’s not smiling but he seems okay and open.

"Yeah. Had two."

She smiles.

"Pit Bulls?" 

"Just one Pit. Ma wanted a pug so bad."

She laughs. She will definitely ask him more about that later. She wants to hear all about his adventures. She weighs whether or not to ask her next question.

"Did you and Maria ever get the kids a pet?" 

He surprises her by laughing softly.

"Nah. Talked about it. Lisa begged us for a kitten for the longest time."

His smile is infectious and she's smiling wide too, pushing hair out of her face.

"Why didn't you get one?"

He is still smiling with that classic tilt of his head. 

"Cause Maria would have had two kids and an animal to take care of when I was gone. Told her we'd get one when I got back for good."

Karen nods. He motions for her to give him the leash. She shakes her head and holds it away from him.

"I want to hold her." 

He looks down at Queen. She stares back at him with wide, adoring eyes and a tail that won’t stop moving. He shrugs and he’s still, remarkably, smiling. 

"Okay." 

They walk around the park. Queen stops to sniff at everything and they don't mind. She comes back periodically for Karen to pet her and Karen obliges without complaint. She and Frank have eased into one of their comfortable silences. At some point, they sit down and Frank lets Queen off the leash.

"When you came back, the last time, was that it?" She asks.

He knows what she's talking about.

"Yeah."

Given what she knows about Kandahar now, she can understand why. She still wants to hear him talk about the decision but she decides to ask about it later. Journalism has taught her how to ask questions and how to sit on them.  

Instead, she reaches out to lightly tug on his much shorter beard. He makes a noise, a combination of a grunt and a hum, and lethargically turns his gaze toward her.

"It's better like this," she says. 

“Yeah?”

His eyes travel from her face to her wrist and then back again. Then he turns to look for Queen who is exploring the grass. When Frank is satisfied that the dog is okay he turns back to Karen as she pulls her hand away.

"Did you have any pets?" he asks. 

She smiles and shakes her head slowly.

"No, my brother was allergic."

She's surprised him again. The look he gives her is familiar. It's the same look he gave her when he asked about Matt in the diner, the look he gives when he's piecing stuff together without her needing to say anything.

"You can ask. If you want to.”

He turns his body halfway toward her.

"What's your brother's name?"

"His name was Kevin."

Saying 'was' to Frank doesn't hurt the way it might with Foggy or anyone else. It's not as fresh as Matt but it's just as complicated and she thinks Frank will understand.

"Was he older or younger?"

She smiles. She pictures his blonde hair and vibrant energy. She almost laughs thinking of how he would drive her utterly crazy.

"Younger. But sometimes he was wiser."

Franks smiles the way he did when he talked about Frank Jr. hiding cookies.

"Really? Trying to picture a teenage version of you."

She laughs.

"I was just red hair and angst, Frank."

His smile grows.

"You're a redhead?"

"Not since I left Vermont."

He looks her up and down.

"Makes sense actually."

It probably does. She was trying to blend in when she moved to New York. Not that there weren't plenty of redheads running around Hell's Kitchen. She just assumed that there were more blondes than redheads and she was right. Sometimes she thinks about switching back. Frank shifts next to her and she knows what he will ask.

"How'd he die?"

She leans back.

"Car accident."

"Were you there too?" 

She nods. She thinks of the noise. The noise had been what frightened her the most.

It was the way the car had screeched as it slid across the concrete and wrapped itself around the trunk of that maple tree. It was the way her own scream had filled her ears when the car kept flipping. Why wasn’t it stopping? 

It was the way Kevin had never made a sound. It had only taken the initial impact to kill him.

“I was the one driving.”

The thing about Frank is that, despite the ways the he is so fucked up, he understands so much. He understands far more than most. So it really does not surprise her that he simply hums at the knowledge that she had been the one driving. He keeps his eyes on her because he knows that this something you do not look away from.

“What happened?”

His voice is soft. He reaches out to twist a lock of her hair around one of his fingers and then pulls away. It happens so quickly that it’s almost like he never touched her at all. They have been doing that more often. Touching.

“We were arguing. I was crying. A car came around the bend, really fast, and I had forgotten to put my headlights on. I did when I saw the car and I guess I startled the driver and the car swerved and hit us. I lost control of the car. Kevin died and I didn’t.”

She feels too afraid to look at Frank, a father, so she keeps her eyes on Queen. Frank is motionless next to her and she wonders if he is thinking of Lisa and Frank Jr. Perhaps he thinks of what he would have done if Lisa had come home without her little brother one day.  

“Hey,” he says, soft. So soft. 

She looks to find him staring at her. He reaches out and slowly places some of her hair behind her ear. She inhales deeply because she does not want to cry in front of him again.

“You think you killed him?”

The tears come anyway. She has to look at Queen because she cannot keep looking at him. Her hands tremble.

“I did kill him, Frank." 

His hand rests on the back of her neck and oh. She wants to lean into him but this thing between them is fragile and unnamed and what the fuck are they even doing anyway?

“Hey, look at me.”

She shakes her head and the tears fall harder but she never makes a sound. She hears the shifting of clothing and his hand disappears from her neck. She misses it immediately and hates herself for it. He fills her vision as he crouches in front of her, placing his hands on either side of her legs.

“Karen.”

The sob rips from her throat painfully and she covers her face with her hands. He just stays like that with his arms bracketing her as she weeps. She cries for Kevin and for Matt and for Frank. She cries for herself and that she is sitting in a park being comforted by the Punisher of all people.

She weeps for how fucked up she must be to want him to be the one to comfort her. All the while he sits there shielding her from the world and muttering softly like he has done this a million time. Then she cries harder because he probably has with Maria and his kids who were gunned down in a park when they were supposed to be safe and happy. At some point, her forehead ends up on his shoulder and she leaves it there. He seems okay with it.

“I don’t normally cry this much.”

He shrugs lightly and her head shifts with the movement.

“Ain’t gotta apologize if you do.”

She turns to look at Queen who is bounding back over to them. She walks right up and starts licking at Karen’s face. Karen croaks out a laugh and Frank tries to push the dog away. Karen stops him.

“It’s okay,” she says as she pulls away from him.

She wipes at her face with the sleeves of her coat. He just watches her and it actually feels okay to let him. 

“Thanks.”

He shrugs.

“Didn’t do anything.”

She jerks her chin to his jacket. He vaguely looks at the wet spot and waves his hand dismissively. Then he’s back to staring at her again and sighs.

“You didn’t kill him.”

He wants to absolve her of guilt but she is so goddamn blameworthy and he can barely even begin to imagine it. Kevin and the accident. It was only part of the story. She should tell him the whole of it because he has told her so much, though she had to find out some of it elsewhere. She wants to tell him but she already feels so tender and blistered that the words just die in her throat.

“Maybe not,” is all she says.

___

She should have known that her appetite for the truth would expose her too. She was stupid for thinking that dragging their sins to the light wouldn’t lead to her own exhumation. The suit across from her slides a picture of a corpse across the table. She recognizes the sick bastard from Vermont and the way his eyes had widened when she had materialized in his kitchen and emptied lead into his stomach.

Then the wall is exploding and all hell is breaking loose. Shots are ringing out and she scrambles for cover. She scurries out the door even though her shoes are gone and her leg got knocked against a chair on the way down.

And then Frank is there and he is enraged. He is so livid.

Men collapse around him and his eyes are a nearly black and his movements are so fluid, so practiced. Before she can even comprehend it he’s in front of her and his eyes aren’t so dark anymore. His gaze is pinpointed to the cut on her temple as if he isn’t the one bathed in blood. She reaches for him at the same time he reaches for her and his hands are searching for injuries. 

Her hands come away slick but none of it is his.

He tells her they have to go and they take off down the hallway. He must hear something when they get to a doorway because he pauses, just for a moment, before he is hauling her away and then slamming into her with enough force to knock her to the ground.

She must be underwater because she can’t breathe and nothing makes sense.

Karen. 

Her head pulsates so strongly she thinks it might burst.

Karen.

She hears a distant groan and something rumbles against her chest.  

Karen, look at me. Please.

She pushes ineffectually at the weight against her arm. The weight just shifts to the back of her head as she turns. Her own hand comes up to press against something solid and she hears someone calling her name.

“Karen, hey, hey, look at me.”

Frank.

Her eyes spring open in panic. She grabs a handful of his shirt and he steadies her.

“Hey, it’s okay. You’re okay. I got you.”

“Are you okay?”

It’s only a croak but she needs him to hear the urgency in her voice. She needs to know that he is okay.

“Yeah, I’m good. I need you to look at me.”

He sounds better than she does but still not great. She does look at him and it hurts to do so. She closes her eyes again because he’s okay and it helps just a little.

“No, hey, Karen, keep your eyes open.”

He sounds anxious. Desperate. Yes. He sounds desperate. She hums because it hurts less to do that than talk. She can hear him curse under his breath and hears the hiss as he pulls himself up. The sound makes her open her eyes to check on him and it startles her how close his face is. He looks over her again and she thinks he’s checking for dilation or something. She tries to blink away the fog as he turns her head gently towards him to see better. 

“You with me?” he asks.

She nods and the anvil knocks against her skull. She grits her teeth. 

“I’m here.”

“Good. We gotta go.”

His hand is still tangled up in the hair at the nape of her neck and he massages gently. It probably should hurt but it’s him and he won’t stop looking at her like his whole world was going to crumble if something had happened to her. She holds onto his wrist because she wants to feel his pulse and know that he really is okay. She feels sleepy again and he can tell so he pulls her to her feet. She sways but steadies herself because she’ll be damned if she makes him fight this himself even if he can.

“Give me a gun." 

He hands it over like they’ve been doing this with each other for far longer than they have.   

___

His loose ends are dead. Her loose ends are still unraveled. He brings them right to her door, slides them to her in an envelope across her dining table as Queen pads around the apartment like it belongs to her.

She knows what the envelope contains before she even opens it.  She takes one look at the picture and then puts it back.

“That’s the last one.”

“Micro?" 

“He helped.”

She tosses the envelope onto the table.

“He’s not the only man I’ve killed.”

Frank nods slowly.

“Figured.”

She taps her nails against the table.

“Don’t you want to know?”

“Do you want to tell me?”

She nods.

“It’s a long story.”

“Okay.”

She looks at the envelope.

“What are we doing to do with this?”

His eyes linger on her for a little while longer. Then he looks at the envelope too. Then at the dog that has placed her head in his lap.

“Burn it. Take Queen on a walk. Get the hottest black coffee we can find.”  

They do take Queen on a walk. Then they find an empty metal trashcan and toss the envelope into it. Frank hands her a lighter and they stay until there is nothing left. He orders himself a black coffee from a cart and a hot chocolate for her after he sees her grimace. She smiles.

It feels something adjacent to healing.