Frank Castle has been through some shit.
That’s why, when the heat in his apartment goes out two days before Christmas, he sees it as a minor inconvenience. He piles on a couple extra blankets at night and spends a lot of time at the diner down the street during the day, reading or perusing the paper. Or he sits and watches people hurrying by the window, carrying gifts under their arms and wrapped in warm layers.
When the heat initially went out he had considered calling up Curtis, to crash on his couch. Although after everything he’d put him through already this year, Frank was hesitant to ask for even more help. Going to the Lieberman’s was out of the question—just the thought of Leo and Zach running around excitedly, much like his own children had during Christmas, makes his heart twist uncomfortably. Lastly, he had considered calling Karen, but that was a-whole-nother can of worms he’d prefer to keep closed.
Ever since that moment in the elevator several weeks prior, Frank had taken strides to keep her at arm’s length. He was painfully aware of his growing feelings for her, and the guilt that accompanied it. Not that she can’t take care of herself, he knows full well that she is more than capable, but Karen is the one bright thing in his life he hasn’t managed to drag into the darkness with him. He prefers to keep it that way. His heart has other ideas, though.
He finds himself thinking of her at the most inopportune times. He’ll be walking down the street and spot a head of blond hair, and his heart will beat a little quicker. He’ll walk past a newspaper stand and instinctively search for her name. He’ll wake in the middle of the night with the ghost of her fingers on his skin, and sweat on his brow.
Almost as if she knows he’s thinking of her, his phone buzzes and her name appears on the screen. He presses it to his ear and forces his tone into something neutral. “Ma’am.”
“Hey, what are you doing right now?”
Frank huffs at her familiarity. “I’m at the diner down from my place. What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. Order me the usual, be there soon.”
Over the past several weeks, despite his efforts, Karen had made more and more of an effort to spend time around him. Almost as if she could sense he was pulling away. Usually they met in public, at a diner or a coffee house. She would ask for advice or insight on a piece and he’d sit across the table from her, smothering his feelings out of existence. Or trying to, at least.
Frank waves down the waitress and orders for Karen, a coffee and a couple eggs, some bacon and toast. He hesitates for the briefest of moments before adding on some hash browns, knowing she’ll protest but hoping for the way her eyes will light up when she sees the guilty pleasure on her plate. Not fifteen minutes later she slides into the booth across from him.
“Hi,” she greets warmly. Her nose is pink from the cold and there’s snow melting on her eyelashes.
“Hey,” he returns, bringing his coffee mug to his lips.
The waitress stops over moments later with fresh coffee and Karen’s food. Karen thanks her then turns her gaze on Frank accusingly. “So. Want to tell me why you’ve been at a diner the last three times we’ve spoken?”
Frank hides the twitch of his lips behind his mug; she is too smart for her own good. He scratches his beard and lifts a shoulder. “Warmer than my apartment.”
Karen’s eyebrows rise like she was expecting something a little less mundane and a little more life threatening. “Oh. So you’re not hiding from people staking out your place?”
“Sorry to disappoint. Furnace’s busted.”
Karen rolls her eyes and stabs her fork into the hash browns. She pauses and grins at him. “You know I don’t order the potatoes.”
Frank smirks at her knowingly. “Then don’t eat them.”
She does anyway, like he knew she would, all the while staring at him with a tilted head. “So, furnace is out, huh? You just freezing to death at night, coming here during the day?”
Frank looks away, out the window. He doesn’t like the way she’s looking at him, like she’s guiding him into saying something incriminating. It feels like a trap. “I get by,” he says finally. “I’m sure it’ll be fixed soon.”
“Frank, come on.” Karen puts on arm on the table, leaning forward. There it is. “It’s Christmas Eve. No landlord in all of New York is going to fix a furnace on Christmas Eve. Or Day, for that matter. Why don’t you come and stay with me for a couple days?”
She says it so casually he almost agrees without thinking. Frank takes another sip to avoid answering and taps his finger on the table. He’s spent the night at her place before, when it was too late to muster up the energy to cross the city back to his own. He tries to keep his overnight stays at a minimum, and always leaves before she wakes. He doesn’t think he can handle the intimacy of watching her wake up and begin her day, smiling easily at him over coffee like he belongs there.
Despite that, he’s not too eager to go back to his cold apartment, especially on a lonely holiday. Karen’s looking at him expectantly and a little defiantly, as if she’s daring him to say no.
“I don’t want to impose on your Christmas,” he tells her with a frown. It’s partially true; if she has plans he doesn’t want to interject himself where he’s not welcome. Mostly he’s just making up excuses, hoping she’ll agree.
“Since I was eighteen, my Christmas has consisted of baking cookies from a tube, and getting drunk alone in my pajamas.” Karen smiles, but there’s a bite to it. “Trust me, you’d actually be doing me a favor.”
She’s waiting patiently for him to respond, smile frozen on her face. It reminds him, just for a moment, of the way she’d smiled at him the first time they’d ever stepped foot into a diner together. She didn’t back down from him then, and she wouldn’t now. They’re two lonely people looking for a little company, and if Frank is being honest with himself, he can’t deny her even if he tries.
Frank sets down his coffee mug and nods. “Alright, then.”
Karen smiles wider and takes another bit of her eggs, satisfied.
When Frank arrives at her apartment later that night, the smell of cookies permeates the hallway. There are several parties he passes on the way to her door, and Christmas tunes are filtering through people’s closed doors. He knocks on Karen’s, overnight bag on his shoulder and free hand grasping a bottle of whiskey.
“Come in!” Karen calls, then scoffs disapprovingly when he steps inside. “Thought I told you about the dress code, Castle.”
He blinks at her cheekiness and glances down at her flannel pajamas and oversized t-shirt. She’s holding a spatula in one hand and a glass of something dark in the other, and her cheeks already have the hint of a flush. She grins at him. “Hope you brought your pjs.”
Frank rolls his eyes and taps his bag. “I’ll get changed,” he tells her, and can’t help his own smile.
She nods definitively, turning back to the oven. “Good idea.”
When he’s changed into sweats and a t-shirt of his own, he joins her at the kitchen island. There’s a small pile of Nestle chocolate chip cookies on a plate, and she’s rolling fresh dough between her hands. “Need some help?”
“Yes,” she jerks her head over her shoulder at a bottle on the counter, “you need to start drinking so I feel like less of an alcoholic.”
“It’s tradition, yeah?” He meets her eyes. “Then I guess I have no reason to say no.”
Karen’s face lights up and she lets out a laugh. “Oh, this is going to be fun.”
An hour later, the last batch of cookies is in the oven and Frank is holding string lights while Karen winds her way around her meager tree with the other end.
“My parents hated putting up the tree,” she tells him the fourth time around, “so they made me and my brother do it. He used to do the lights, I’m awful at it.”
Frank has found that Karen is a chatty drinker. She talks about what she’s thinking, she doesn’t have a filter, and she reminisces about her past. This had interested him the most—he doesn’t know much about her past, just what she’s deigned appropriate to tell him. “Looks like you’re doing alright,” he tells her wryly, eyes following her.
She flashes a grin at him, eyebrows going up with half a shrug. “Been doing it alone for a while now. Thanks for the help.”
Frank shifts his weight. “So where’s your brother now?” he hedges curiously.
Karen comes back around the tree and passes in front of him, but her eyes are hard and she doesn’t look at him. “Dead. Car accident, when we were kids.”
Ah. Frank tugs on the strings to get her to stop. She looks over, biting her lip. “I’m sorry,” he tells her softly.
Karen looks away, then shakes her head and straightens. “Thanks. I miss him.”
She continues around the tree and Frank thinks of something to say. “My kids were always too young to do stuff like this. Maria and I would—would hang the lights and the garland and they would decorate the bottom of the tree. Y’know, candy canes and shit. Frankie always begged to put the star on, and I would always lift him up so he could. He loved it.”
Karen finishes the lights and stops next to him to admire it. She’s a couple inches away and the subtle smell of her perfume mixed with whiskey hits his nose. She looks at him. “What about Lisa?”
He startles at the name and looks over. Karen is looking at him, her eyes kind and gentle. “Uhh, nah. She um, she just liked to hang up the ornaments. Most unselfish kid ever. As long as everyone else was happy, she was too.”
Karen hums quietly in agreement, then stoops over to pick up a box of ornaments. They begin hanging the colorful orbs in silence, and eventually the tree is almost finished. She looks at him and holds out the star. “You want the honors?”
Frank hesitates. He hasn’t actually decorated a Christmas tree since his family had passed, and the thought of putting on the topper without them makes his stomach clench with unease. Karen reaches out and takes his hand, setting the star in his palm.
“I didn’t know them, Frank,” she says quietly. “But I have a feeling they would want you to.”
She says it without anything other than pure confidence, and he knows she’s right. He steps forward and reaches up, positioning the star on top carefully, meticulously. He hears Frankie’s excited voice in his ears, feels Lisa’s hand grasping at his shirt. Maria’s breath ghosts over his neck. He’s surrounded by the fragments of them, just memories passing through. By the time he comes back into himself, Karen is in the kitchen pouring them another drink. Her back is to him, and he feels the familiar war in his chest at the familiarity she shares with him.
“Sometimes,” he says to her shoulders before he loses his nerve, “I think they would be angry with me.”
Karen pauses, then turns around and leans against the counter. She crosses her arms and watches him. She knows who he means. “Angry for what?”
Frank shrugs and gestures vaguely. “For… Moving on.”
Karen pushes off the counter but doesn’t come any closer, arms falling to her sides. She’s sobered up a little, and she’s looking at him with a deep frown on her face. Frank knows that look by now, it’s the same look she has when she’s thinking up an argument or trying to piece together a story. “Have you moved on, Frank?”
He holds her gaze, and realizes distantly that this is a terrible idea. He can’t lie to her, and she sees straight through him anyway. He walks over to the counter and picks up his glass, finishing his drink quickly. Karen’s still watching him when he finishes, the picture of calm. She’s not accusing, not pushing, she’s just…being Karen. He feels like a kid again, like that day when he’d first met Maria, and he remembers the boldness of her personality, the easy way she tore down his walls. It was happening all over again, except this time, it’s Karen.
Frank sets his glass down and the whiskey sits warmly in his belly. He realizes all at once that he loves the woman standing in front of him, even if he still loves his wife too. The thought tears him apart.
“I don’t know,” he says slowly. “I… don’t know how this works. Do you ever—do you ever actually move on from something like that, Karen? She was my wife, and they were my kids and now—now they’re dead. And I’ll never hold any of them again and shit the guilt just—just fucking kills me, sometimes. You know? Like…I’m not doing them justice by-” He stops abruptly, looking away.
Karen doesn’t move; it looks like she’s holding her breath. Frank closes his eyes, feels the emotions swirling inside him. He takes a slow, deep breath in through his nose. When he’s regained some of his composure, he meets Karen’s gaze.
“It’s my fault they’re gone, Karen. Feel like it makes me a bad person, if I let myself move on.”
Karen comes back to life, moving around the counter to stand before him. They’re almost eye-level in socks, and her hand hovers over his chest. “I don’t think it makes you a bad person at all, Frank. They were your family, and they are your family, that will never change. But…they would want you to be happy, I think.”
She’s so close, she’s scrambling his thoughts. The whiskey aftertaste is heavy on his tongue. He swallows thickly.
“Cookies are burning,” he says finally, and Karen gives him one last, long look before she goes back into the kitchen.
Midnight comes and goes without their noticing.
They’ve got a plate of cookies between them on the coffee table, and “A Christmas Story” is playing for the second time on the television. They’d fallen into silence long ago—not necessarily awkward or uncomfortable, but silence nonetheless.
Alfie is beating his bully up on the screen when Karen mutes the television and looks at him. “I didn’t overstep, earlier. Right? You would tell me?”
Frank gives her a baffled frown. “Of course not. You—of all people—I don’t care you if you…talk about them. You’re the one that helped me remember them in the first place.”
And then it clicks. He blinks slowly, turning to face her. “Karen, you helped me remember.”
She’s looking at him warily. “You said that already.”
Frank lurches to his feet, pacing back and forth. Of course, he should have realized it sooner. Karen was there from the beginning, Karen shoved that picture under his nose in the hospital, Karen woke him up and forced him to remember. Karen was the one to keep his family’s memory alive. Why should he think that Maria, that Frankie, that Lisa would be angry with him, when Karen was the one who made it even possible for him to avenge them? He stops and turns to her, staring at him from the couch. The relief is making him giddy.
“Frank.” It’s more of a question, and she’s half out of her seat by the time he’s walked over to her. He pulls her up and places his hands on her cheeks, eyes wide.
“They wouldn’t be angry with me,” he tells her confidently, feeling her hands grip his arms, her breath on his lips. She’s warm, so warm, under his fingers, and he’s never been more sure of anything. “I’ve been—fuck, I’ve been thinking this whole time that I don’t—I don’t deserve you, that you’re too good for me.” He steps back but her hands grasp at his arms, rooting him there. Her eyes are wide, and she’s confused, but his smile is infectious. “And you are, but I’ve been thinking that they would be so fucking angry at me, for doing this, for—“
“For what, Frank?” She’s winded, like watching him pace around has taken the breath from her own lungs.
“For loving you.”
Karen chokes, and her mouth falls open in shock. “You—what?”
“I love you. And I loved them, and I love them, and I don’t want you to think that I’m forcing you, I just…needed you to know.”
Frank steps back and Karen’s arms fall at her sides. She’s staring at him like he’s completely lost his mind, and he begins to think that he’s misconstrued all of this when finally, Karen lifts her chin.
“Frank, I would never, ever do anything to… Dishonor your family’s memory. That’s the last thing I want.” She steps closer and slips her fingers into his. The Christmas tree flickers behind her. “But I just need you to know, I—I love you, too.” Her voice is incredibly soft, her eyes softer. “For a long time, now, I think. I just wasn’t sure if you were ready, and I didn’t want to push if—…”
Frank can’t help himself. He pulls her to him and kisses her soundly. Her fingers slide up and curl into his hair and she groans into his mouth. The sound makes him shiver, and he crowds her, fingers exploring the curve of her shoulder, the dip of her waist, the firmness of her hip. She responds in kind, fingers trailing down his neck to the wide expanse of his chest.
They’re both breathless by the time they pull away, and she stares at him in quiet awe for a moment, resting her hand above his heart. Her smile is gentle, excited, content.
“You know I’ve seen this movie about a million times,” she breathes after a moment, tilting her head to angle her lips a hairsbreadth from his own. “And, if you want…the bed is much more comfortable than the couch.”
Frank’s brows raise and he lifts one corner of his mouth in amusement. “Tree’s too bright to sleep out here, anyways.”
She pulls him by the hand, laughing. Her eyes are sparkling wickedly.
“Sleep? Who said anything about sleep?”