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i can hear your gentle call

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part i — december 8th

 


 

 

 

Karen reasons it's been long enough when she lifts the window up and sets the roses out onto the ledge, scanning her eyes over the busy street and pausing a beat to wonder if he'll notice. If he'll even check at all. A voice in the back of her head, latching onto these moments of quiet loneliness with harrowing pessimism, doubts he's still around. Still lurking anywhere nearby.

Alive, yes, but that wasn't all of her fear. Living and simply existing were two very distinct things.

It's the second week of December and the city is well into stringing colorful lights and tinsel across store-fronts and wrapping them around street lamps, arrays of cutesy stickers and brushed holiday scenes dancing across windows. It makes her smile, albeit with the slight bitter touch of nostalgia she always gets. Another year, another celebration passing all by herself.

There's only a handful left in the city that seem willing to keep talking about the re-emergence of Frank Castle once the dust settles, remembrance of him easily swept up and away in the flurry of holiday chaos.

Foggy calls, awkwardly, to make sure she really is okay as soon as he hears about it, but the entire conversation is painfully stilted. Trish Walker invites her onto her radio program to discuss the aftermath of the city's latest brush with terrorism and all she knew from her intimate encounters with Castle, Lewis, a sort of follow-up to her appearance on the Ricky Langtry Show (he'd invited her, too) but she declined. She declined talking to anyone about it more -- her account of the hotel went straight to Ellison, got printed up in an artfully padded piece of bullshit to send their readership skyrocketing and make her boss happy, and that was the extent of her sharing.

The one person she wanted to talk with the most was in the wind, anyway.

She doesn't tell Ellison everything, not at all, but it's close. Close enough for him to fill in the gaps with his imagination more than adequately -- she can see it all over his face. And Ellison, no matter how disgruntled, makes the call to go out of his way to protect her, leaving out certain bits. Trims down the hostage saga that sound a bit too close to the truth she doesn't fully share, sounds too much like she chose one perceived terrorist over another. Omits the other hostage usage that let Castle escape out the elevator entirely.

It isn't something she asks him to do, torn between feeling grateful and guilty, but it's his choice. And it is nice to know someone's still got her back, professional bond or not. This time, when she tells him that Frank wasn't the bad guy, he almost looks like he believes her. At the very least, he doesn't fight it so hard with the worries over projection.

The article starts and ends about one Lewis Wilson, Frank's presence relegated more to a shadow than anything else, leaving it up for readers to conclude if he acted as either hitman or hero.

It doesn't matter in the end, though. Not in two weeks' time. None of it does.

Ellison gets another visit from Homeland about the same time the city's entire media presence drops the name Frank Castle into the void, and Karen recognizes this ploy, recognizes how suddenly everyone's running eerily similar cookie-cutter stories citing sources with identical quotes and a rapidly spat out joint press release from the NYPD and DHS about Lewis, Russo, ANVIL. That last part leaves her in surprise for quite a while, caught so flat-footed that she's not sure where to begin parsing truth from fiction.

She wishes they could probe more, push harder. She has a million one ideas of her own that plague her thoughts.

There's a story that gets buried in the back of the paper because of all this, too, but Karen insists on following up on it, writing it herself. Shutdown of the Central Park carousel for unknown reasons. Police presence, two employees that refuse to speak, and witness accounts of gunfire in the distance. Brett gives in off-the-record about some inter-agency cooperation, but he doesn't know exactly who, doesn't know why, and can't confirm or deny when she floats DHS to him.

It's all hush-hush. No questions, no answers.

She almost calls Madani then to lay her cards out on the table for sake of her own personal interests, just to get more answers for herself -- has a serious mind to, even dials some of the digits on and off for a few days in the odd moment she's pacing her office, holed up on the subway, waiting for a crosswalk sign to turn green. But, she pauses. Waits.

There wasn't any incentive for Frank's name to be cleared from the mess Lewis started. Unless--

Unless Madani was actually able to help him, somehow. Unless, when he got to the bottom of the truth of why he lost his family, he was able to prove enough of it. Peeled open a can of worms corrupt enough to make some people in some high places choose him as the lesser of two evils and bury his presence accordingly.

When she thinks about it long enough -- too long, again, for yet another night in a row -- her head gets dizzy, itch along her spine urging her to investigate, to dig. She resists.

Karen puts the roses out in the window and counts the hours.

 


 

 

Dusk descends with the harsh snap of an imminent freeze when she finds herself in the shadow of the Manhattan Bridge once more, loitering in the half-light along the ironwork fence. It's too cold to sit without the risk of turning into an icicle between the humidity, wind chill, and base temperature, so she doesn't try. Karen shifts on her feet, pacing a few steps every ten minutes. She glances steadily between the lapping water in front of her and the deserted sidewalk behind.

There was no reason for her to think he'd show up now, that he'd seen the pot. There was no reason for her to wait here so long. She just was.

Her ringtone chirps loudly as she rubs her gloves together.

The screen flashes UNKNOWN at her, but something -- maybe the boredom, maybe the tell-tale tug in her gut -- makes her answer where she'd usually send it straight to voicemail and check it first thing in the morning. "Hello?"

"Hey," Frank greets, lone word soft and ragged.

A breath whooshes out of her before her lips quirk. "Hey."

"I, uh. I can't show up....Sorry."

"Something wrong?"

"No, no. Just-- bad timing."

Turning a bit, she sags against the fence, ducking her chin against the double-layered scarf further as a particularly strong gust rolls in from the Atlantic and assaults her. "Is it bad timing because you're planning to hurt someone, or--"

"No," he answers quickly, firm. "No. It's not that."

Karen nods to herself, relief flooding through her veins, before she remembers that he can't see it. "Okay....Wait, then how did you know I was here?"

A short chuckle echoes across and her eyelashes flutter. It's jarring, to hear him so calm and relaxed again, but more than that it's... nice. She sinks into it. "Hm, yeah, uh-- Lieberman let me know. There's, um. There's a camera he set up, pointed at your window. Just the ledge, for the flowers, not--"

"I got it," she assures, grinning small. Better to save him the embarrassment of floundering further in explaining without explicitly having to say that no, he's not spying inside her apartment, it's not like that.

"Anyway, he went back and looked through some feeds after you left. Said he saw you headed that way, so."

"Mm. Right."

Silence drapes over them like a cocooning blanket.

Despite the distance, despite the frigidity and the wind, if she closes her eyes for an extra second, she can almost imagine him standing right next to her. Imagine they're holed up in their own sort of bubble, nothing else in the world able to intrude as they take a moment of peace. The knot of tension she's been carrying at the base of her spine slowly unfurls at the thought.

When the sun disappears behind skyscrapers, she blinks and faces the river.

"I love the water."

"Yeah?" He asks, and his tone's rougher now, as if she's caught him off-guard.

"Yeah.... I grew up in Vermont, and it's covered in little waterways from the mountains. Not many people really know that here," she comments, thinking of all the times she's withheld her past from prying eyes, good and bad. Kept her history tucked close to her chest.

She sighs now with a loose smile, watching the water lap in crisp waves.

"There was this one that ran through part of town.... My parents wanted me to learn how to swim with a class in the community pool because it was safe. Smart. But my grandmother just asked me what I wanted.” Karen shakes her head fondly, bites back a snort at their foolishness. Forgets the present for a moment. “I think my mom always held a grudge against me after that when she saw how similar we were. I wanted to swim in the river and be wild and my grandmother, she reasoned that's how she'd learned, so why not, right?”

“Let me guess, didn’t go so well?” Frank asks when she pauses. Reminds her that he’s still there.

She curls a hand around the fence, metal harsh and cutting against her palm, layer of wool between be damned. She doesn't pull away. “I got swept under the current twice, but I learned. I wasn't afraid -- that was one of the best days of my life. I loved it....My parents when they found out, though. God. They were so pissed, it was really something else.”

Equal parts fear and rage, the fear had won out that day and given way to relief at her well-being. But that wasn’t the last time she saw that look — the last was in the hospital. Rage took over then, and she doubts if it's ever left, even now.

Frank doesn’t have any other comments in response to her story. She doesn't expect him to, though. What is there to say? He just listens, but she’s glad for it, savoring the sound of his breathing steadily across the line.

“I had a whole list of questions to ask you,” she confesses, shifting on her feet again. “What happened after the hotel, with Lieberman. What I'm fairly certain was another carousel shooting.”

“Saw about the carousel, huh? Yeah -- I figured you'd put that together..... So, what’s stopping you from askin'?”

“It just feels pointless after hearing your voice.” She laughs then, but there’s not much humor within. More nerves than anything else. Her teeth bang together briefly, on the verge of chattering. “You’re okay?”

“I’m okay...You?”

“Yeah. Yeah, I’m good....And, uh, all the answers you were looking for? All the men you were going after? How do you feel?”

“They’re taken care of, got what they deserved....It has to be enough, right?” He asks, and there’s a lilt in the last words, another question underneath for himself, maybe, or the universe at large. Something she can’t really answer, so she doesn’t attempt to.

“I’m here, Frank. Whenever you want to talk. Or don’t.... Just, you know. You have my number.”

“...Thanks, Karen.”

 

 


 

part ii — december 12th 

 


 

 

 

UNKNOWN: I'm taking care of a dog.

The message comes in randomly, during the middle of a busy Tuesday, about four days after the call at the waterfront. Karen's at the Bulletin and engrossed by rifling through stacks of notes in barely organized piles across her desk. The system makes sense to her, at least -- most of the time. She straightens her back after fetching the cell phone, distraction instantaneous as she stares at the message, unsure what to make of it.

She isn't stuck wondering how to respond for very long before recognition clicks with the next string that dings through.

UNKNOWN: That's why I couldn't show up.
UNKNOWN: Vet says he's about six weeks old. Someone dumped him on the street. Found him in the snow half frozen and he's the shy type. It doesn't feel right leaving him at a shelter yet but he's on a pretty intense feeding and meds schedule. Can't go anywhere without him for now.

Lips stretching wide in a fast smile, her eyes flicker for a beat to the busy bullpen outside her office window. She still has to deliver about five hundred more words to Ellison on this piece by six am tomorrow and she was no closer to figuring out which angle was better to run with than she was an hour ago. She desperately needed some decent coffee, a breath of fresh air, and from there a new perspective to tackle this with.

A break might do her some good right about now.

Running a hand through her hair, she steps back from the mess and reaches for her coat. She finishes her response before sliding it on and grabbing her bag.

--He's lucky you found him. What does he look like?

Karen just catches the elevator before the doors close, someone from marketing and two of the writers from the political section nodding in greeting to her, when her phone chirps again. The last thing she expects Frank to send is a picture. A giggle bursts forth before she can clasp a hand over her mouth.

A tiny gray pit bull pup, no bigger than five pounds if she had to guess, stares with a line of sight directed just above the camera with bright eyes and a blurry, half-open mouth. Caught mid-yawn or mid-yap, she can't be sure. Not that it matters, though, since the dog is the most adorable thing she's seen in weeks. Maybe months.

There's nothing discernible about the background, only a cement floor visible. She ignores the curious glances of those around her in the confined space and types back quickly.

--He doesn't look shy at all. He's a total charmer

UNKNOWN: Only to the camera. Tries stealing my phone every time I pull it out.

--Maybe he's just trying to hog your attention

UNKNOWN: Solid theory.

Karen giggles again as she steps off at the lobby and moves practically on auto-pilot through the front doors. The outside blasts her, flush springing up to her cheeks, but she welcomes how it clears her head a touch. Her boots crunch through the icy remains of a wet overnight snowfall.

--Does he have a name yet?

UNKNOWN: Naming him means keeping him.

--You'll keep him.

UNKNOWN: Yeah? And why do you think that?

Because I know you, she thinks, but her thumb hovers over sending that as she stands in line at one of her preferred coffee carts just around the block. Frank Castle, patron saint of lost and abandoned souls, carer of the damned innocents. She snorts quietly to herself. He'd give her quite a look if she teased him with that.

It's her turn to order before she can get too sidetracked down that rabbit-hole, though -- the one that has her imagining seeing him in person again, the one that's torn between the urge to finally vent some tucked-back frustrations at having to be the one to reach out to him first, after everything, and the urge to hold him tight and never let go ever again. It's a foolish urge, that last one, but it's a powerful one nonetheless.

A yearning.

She splurges on a pastry, too, after ordering her own coffee, and doesn't end up answering until nearly ten minutes have passed.

--Just have a feeling.

His response is lightning fast in comparison.

UNKNOWN: You could pick a name and keep him yourself.
UNKNOWN: After I potty train him. I am a gentleman.

-- How thoughtful, Frank. But as cute as he is, I don't have any time to take care of a dog. You'll find a great home to take him in
-- I have a feeling about that too.

UNKNOWN: Yeah?

--Yeah

UNKNOWN: Okay.

 


 

They start texting every day, at all hours. The number flashes across her screen as either unknown or blocked every time so she doesn't try to save it, doesn't ask why he's still using burners when it keeps changing, conversation starting up anew in yet another chat on yet another morning. The cycle resets every few days but Karen doesn't delete any of the past messages.

It's not exactly a smart move, she knows, because if anyone gets a hold of her phone somehow, if anyone sees, they'll know. They call each other by their names, they reference the past. It's all laid out bare and plain to see.

But-- she keeps them anyway, scrolling through every one sometimes late at night with the same flair of tenderness she gets when she cares for the pot of roses on the table as their petals drift off, one by one. She doesn't have a lot to remember him by and even less keepsakes about those she's cared about before in general, singular photograph of her with Foggy and Matt during better times propped up at the corner of her TV console.

Frank is one of the few people she likes to think she still has, even if it is a connection maintained across the city and through a phone-line.

She'll be damned if she doesn't treasure every little thing from him now. Every hello, every inquiry about her day or new observation about the dog, every awkward emoji attempt after she starts using them herself purely to tease him.

They call, sometimes, but it's easier like this. There's no rush. Responses come when the other has the time, but they always come, and in the open space of speech bubbles and block text, it's almost easier to talk more. He shares the rest of the story with Lieberman, tells her about Curtis, about the veterans support group. Frank gives her more than enough information to uncover which group it is if she wants, too -- and she almost runs with it, almost tries just to know, just because -- but ultimately she decides to let it be.

She doesn't need to know exactly where he's going, where he's trying to find the answers to his after in life, all she has to see is that he is.

And that he's coming back.

She just wants him to keep coming back.

 

 


  

part iii — december 22nd

 


 

 

 

Christmas music strums out in low tones from where her TV's set to one of the holiday channels, tunes running in the background more for white noise than any particular sense of spirit as she works late. This time, everything clicks into place, more than a little intensely focused after a pot and a half of coffee as she polishes her article to send in days ahead of deadline. It's another of her investigative pieces -- a look into a city commissioner on trial over corruption, fraud, and embezzlement charges.

Ellison had said it could fetch another front-page spot if court proceedings proved interesting enough. She didn't tell him about the defense attorney's little meltdown in-between witnesses, saves that little surprise for him to read about when she no doubt ends up emailing this over in the early hours of dawn. A sort of holiday present. The idea keeps a ghost of a smirk on her face as she bends over her laptop.

She wouldn't ever call herself ambitious, really. She just loves her job.

A few strokes before midnight, a knock at the door makes her jolt in her seat. Karen stands as the flash of adrenaline mellows out within her veins. Taking her gun out of the drawer is second-nature before she walks over, pressing a hip against the wall and peering through the peephole at a defensive angle.

Who she finds on the other side immediately dissipates all the instinctual anxiety that's started to raise goosebumps along her skin, but it still keeps her frozen and firm on her feet for a couple extra moments nonetheless.

Frank's got that combo of hoodie over ball-cap going on again, but the beard doesn't look to be making a resurgence any time soon, face as clean-shaven as ever. There's only a day's worth of stubble, at most. Glancing around steadily, shifting on his feet, it doesn't do enough to hide the sickly but fading blue across his cheekbones, a mark to the side of his chin, a couple healing scrapes by his eyes and one nick at his forehead.

Her heart lurches in her chest.

The door's unlatched in the next second.

Throwing it open, she's halted in her tracks from doing much more by the sight of a now-eight weeks old pup peeking out from the inside of his jacket, chin resting on the halfway-zipped hoodie underneath. Karen lets out a huff of a breath in surprise, smiling. The dog's ears perk up.

"Frank," she starts, raising her eyes and giving him a look that's full of good-humored questions and more than one tease.

He rolls his lips, swallowing back the twitch of amusement there as he nods beyond her. "Can I come in?"

Throwing the locks back into place behind him after he walks past, she moves to replace her gun within the desk drawer while he pads across her floor surprisingly unobtrusively in his boots. It strikes a chord within her, how gentle he is. How gentle he always is in these tucked away moments they struggle to find and keep.

As soon as he's out of the entry hall and actually within her space, he lifts a hand to throw back the hoodie and remove the cap. It gets set on the kitchen island before he's helping the dog down. The pup sniffs the floor avidly while her gaze zeroes in on a particular mark embedded along the side of Frank's skull.

He turns. "Nice decorations. He won't chew up anything, I promise, he's--"

She doesn't let him finish, stepping over and reaching out to press lightly above his ear, fingertips tracing the healing and soon-to-scar line of yet another bullet wound to the head. Another brush with death. The last time she saw this, it'd drenched a path of red down his neck and beyond. He'd stood in front of her, covered in blood and soot with a shard of metal sticking out of his arm, and she'd had to use all of her might to pull away, to not sob in front of him.

It was impossible to ask him to stay then. Another moment with an expiration date already decided.

A lump forms inside her throat, forces her to attempt a shaky breath.

"Karen...."

She meets his eyes. A sheen layer of tears cover them, mirroring hers, as he keeps flitting between searching her stare and the rest of her features. Reading her. Tilting her head, she lifts her other hand to rest gingerly on his shoulder as one of his finds her hip with a hesitant touch of his own. She barely registers that they've started curving so intimately around each other, swaying slight. "...You look like shit."

That startles a grin, hard and fast, before fondness and something more settles behind his gaze, softens his face beyond the raw vulnerability. "Yeah, well. Shoulda seen me a couple weeks ago."

"I saw you at the hotel," she reminds, blinking fast. There's the way he dips his head, though, rolling his lips, that makes her press closer. "How much worse did it get?"

Not quite looking straight on, head ducked, he gives a kind of shrug. "You don't wanna know. It's over."

Karen could ask details. Pester him to share before he's ready. She thinks that if she tries persistently enough, he might just give in.

Her fingertips trace the line on the side of his skull again, almost absently. It's a reminder both good and bad. He got shot, but he survived. He put himself in a perilous situation, but he wouldn't leave her behind. Her eyes prick with rising tears once more when his temple brushes hers with a soft press, deep breaths taken in unison. Warmth radiates off of him as strong a fireplace.

"I'm really glad you're here, Frank," she confesses in a whisper, vocal chords choking on some of the syllables. "I don't-- I don't know if I could take that, really losing you; I can't--"

A half a step, and solid arms envelop her. She reacts instinctively, wrapping around his shoulders and burying her head into the crook of his neck as he rests a hand high between her shoulder blades. Closing her eyes as she inhales, they steady each other. "You don't got to," he says quietly.

Her grip curls tighter, and so does his.

 

 


 

 

The puppy gradually relaxes within her space, exploring on unsteady feet until he's walked the perimeter of her living room at least three times. They let him -- Karen not wanting to startle him, and Frank making a comment about the dog satisfying his curiosity -- after pulling out of the hug. It's slow this time with loosening limps and fingers slipping off clothes instead of the jolt of before.

Safe and calming, she doesn't want to let go at all.

But they have to.

She refills her own mug -- one with a retro-looking label of 'Coffee Solves Everything!' that she's especially sentimental about -- after fetching one for him and handing it over. His palm cups her hand for a lasting moment. It feels, if not intentional, then at least not unwanted as he ducks his head again after. She turns back with her own refreshed caffeine fix in time to watch him when he catches sight of the whimsical bird cartoons along the side of the porcelain. When his lips twitch and he lifts his stare, she rolls her eyes.

"I've started collecting stupid mugs. It's a pretty cheap hobby and it doesn't take up a lot of time. It's a win-win for my lifestyle," she jokes.

Frank hides the growing smirk behind his cup as he takes a gulp, and then he's loitering on his feet, shoulder leaning into the column across from her as she rests her lower back against the kitchen island. Waits.

Her patience shrivels up and anxiety gets the better of her when the dog finishes his fourth lap around the space and settles next to the petite Christmas tree she's got sparsely ornamented in the corner. He curls up into a small ball and falls fast sleep. "I know we've never talked about it, so I didn't have any reason to expect anything from you, okay, I get that. But... I thought you'd reach out, after everything settled," she starts, searching him this time.

His trigger finger taps against a bluebird to an irregular beat, eyes cast towards the ground.

She sighs. "Why didn't you?"

"...I don't know what I'm doing, Karen," he admits softly. When he raises his stare, the vulnerability's back, soul exposed to her, and she has to resist instinct to reach out again. Shaking his head, he licks his lips, casts his gaze around with every other word. "You said you wanted me to have an after, right? I didn't plan to choose that.... Okay, I didn't. Honest. But I had a chance, a choice, and I... I couldn't go.

"So what's next, hm?" His shoulders lift once, tensely. "'Cause everyone's dealt with, yeah; David's back with his family. I don't belong there. I got a fresh start with this name but what am I gonna do as Pete, huh? Only thing that's makin' any sense right now is takin' care of that dog...."

She watches him look to the pup, lingering with a troubled expression. A bittersweet smile twitches along her lips. "I don't know.... But you're not gonna figure it out right away, Frank. You're just not. That's not how it works. It's taken me years to find the right fit," she confides.

Sometimes, it seemed like everything in her life had become a journey in mapping one tragedy to the next ever since turning eighteen, capturing stolen happiness in the small interim periods between deaths and abuse. For all that she's dealt with already, advice was still impossible to give. There was no easy fix to grief.

When his brown eyes meet hers once more, she's the one that shrugs this time as she sets her cup down. Karen holds out a hand. "What about this? For tonight, don't think about it. Come on, you pick your adorably sleepy dog back up and we can get something to eat. There's a diner just around the block; the kind that won't care about puppies hidden inside jackets or suspiciously familiar bruised faces," she adds, pleased at the crinkle it prompts around his eyes. "Deal?"

"Deal."

 

 


 

part iv — december 23rd

 


 

 

 

Karen sends off her article around three-thirty in the morning. Ellison's read it by seven. Along with some comments about what he was expecting to change because of what he saw as likely but slight edits here and there, he lets her know they're running with it the day after Christmas, front-page -- the day after an obligatory fluffing of the paper simply for the sake of no one willing to read about the dramatic doom and gloom of reality on a holiday -- and to have fun taking the next few days off.

Reading the response when she checks her phone after a short nap, she grins and then flops over, burying herself further underneath the covers. She was blissfully devoid of plans. No last minute holiday shopping to worry about, and now no work to report into. It was a perfect day to snooze and catch up on some much-needed sleep.

A series of knocks drags her awake a startlingly brief two hours later. She groans into her pillow.

That better not be 3A again or I swear to God, she starts in her head before stretching and sitting her. In an exhaustion-addled haze, Karen realizes now that all she'd managed to do was drop her skirt and bra before falling into bed. When the knocks repeat, she rolls her eyes and hastily pulls on a pair of flannel pants before padding to the door. One glance through the peep-hole and sleepy annoyance melts away into complete and utter confusion.

Frank holds up a paper bag in one hand, keeping the tranquil-looking puppy still in the crook of his other arm. "You busy?"

There's no pause for a proper greeting, but his question is far from rough. Heat bursts underneath her cheeks as he does a cursory glance over her, self-consciously aware right then how awful she must look. Mussed hair, no make-up, wrinkled dress shirt over bright red flannel. She was a certified mess.

"...I woke you up," he deduces, and as soon as he speaks again, she realizes a good minute must've passed without any response from her as she keeps running a hand through her hair, failing to feel any renewal of confidence at her appearance from it.

"What gave it away?" A brief smile, and then she steps aside, giving up on trying to tamp down her hair. "Don't worry about it. My schedule's terrible, but I go off barely six hours most of the time, it's nothing. Come in, I'll put on a pot."

"I can get it," he says after letting the dog loose in the living room once again. "Really, I insist. Think I can figure out your cabinets."

"I don't know, it's a giant kitchen."

He chuckles, she huffs a laugh. In a single moment, he's shedding his jacket and fitting seamlessly inside the confines of her apartment once more, as if he belongs just as much as her. There's a dozen questions that immediately spring to the forefront of her mind. Why he's here, why now. If it's really just for breakfast, if something's happened in the barely ten hours since they last saw each other, if he's okay.

Frank's calm though as he prods at her coffee machine and investigates drawers. Nothing pressing has prompted him here, then.

Karen slips back into her bedroom. She makes quick work of a bra and sweater, decides the pants are fine enough, and confronts her face in the mirror. Not as terrible as expected -- the universe could be kind to her on a rare day. If it wanted to be.

A few minutes later, she emerges after washing her face to find him staring out her window with a freshly steaming cup in hand. He's unlocked it and propped the glass up several inches, bitter breeze outside wafting in to air out her stuffy apartment, steadily rustling the leaves of the rose bush he's moved off the shelf and to the ledge. She stops at the island counter and opens the paper bag.

Two giant cinnamon rolls reside within.

"Didn't know what to get," he says. "Came down to this or doughnuts."

"This," she confirms with a grinning nod. "Always this." Karen doesn't bother with plates as she pulls them out, setting his on the bag and sliding it towards him before taking hers in hand, pulling it apart. Still warm and gooey between the layers. As soon as the cinnamon sugar hits her tongue, she closes her eyes and lets out an almost obscene moan.

It's heaven.

"Where did you get these?" She asks around dough, wiping at a smudge she feels on her bottom lip.

When she blinks, Frank is staring at her with radiating amusement and something more, something unreadable. He gives the name of a bakery she is pretty damn sure she's walked by about half a dozen times already but never gone in before because it always looked closed to abandoned. "One of the city's better kept secrets," he notes.

"How'd you find it?"

"Sarah mentioned it. David really recommended it."

"They have great taste."

A shared grin, and Frank tears a piece off his own pastry. Pauses. "...You wanna meet them? Curtis?"

She looks at him. He gazes back, completely serious.

"Not now, just, you know.... Sometime, in the new year."

It feels like more than a friendly invitation. They're the rest of the last he cares about, the ones he's called family every time he's shared this or that about them over intimate text messages and late-night phone calls. They're the rest of his life she hasn't been able to really touch. Until now.

It feels overwhelmingly important. Meaningful.

She nods. "Yeah. I want to."

 

 


 

 

A light dusting of snow starts up when they leave for a walk not too long later. Turns out her coffee tin is nearly empty, only enough grounds left to make the half a pot they drain pretty quickly, so they decide to go out again instead. She paid the diner tab, he got the rolls, she buys the coffee. He doesn't want her to, actually, but she slaps a five down on the cart's counter before he has a chance to shift the puppy in his arms and retrieve his own wallet.

She smiles a bit triumphantly as she passes his paper cup over to him. "Next one's on you. We'll take turns."

Once, it would've been surreal to assume more with Frank, to assume they'll keep seeing each other without the necessity of danger or injuries or help, and maybe an inkling of that feeling swells like déjà vu after the words escape her, but he doesn't linger on it either. He just accepts the plan with raised eyebrows and the barest hint of a nod.

They talk easier than the night before. Despite her best attempts at lightening the mood then, they'd fallen into companionable silence often, simply enjoying the other's almost melancholic-tinged company across the booth and sharing observations about the rest of the world around them more than anything else. The topics of her job, his skull-adorning activities, and the rest of their history was more or less left at the door as soon as they'd walked in.

"Looks like it's gonna snow tomorrow," Karen had said for small talk before they'd parted on the sidewalk in the dark.

It comes down steadily now as they loop around a concrete plaza a couple blocks from her apartment. He's explaining about Curtis' informal book exchange program, makes a comment about thinking the man's trying to beat him over the head with philosophy more than sharing decently storied material for escapism, and she covers a hand over her mouth to keep from laughing outright at the way Frank keeps rolling his eyes.

She bumps her shoulder softly against his. "What's the current book?"

"A Tale of Two Cities. Never been a big fan of Charles Dickens."

Karen peers over at him. "Have you read it before?"

"No, not this one. Why?" He asks, eyes narrowing when he notices her inquisitive look.

"What part are you at?"

"Lucie's husband just left for Paris. Gonna get himself killed."

She hums.

He bumps her shoulder this time. "Yeah? What's that?"

"Nothing."

"Mhm."

"I'm not gonna spoil it for you!"

Bending slight to catch her wayward and somewhat avoiding gaze, she bites her lips to keep from smiling at him. "...It's one of your favorites, right?"

"...Maybe." Frank straightens with a smirk. "It's on my bookshelf, in fact. You're tempting me to start it again."

"How many times?"

She doesn't have any trouble deciphering his vague question. "I've only read it like five times." When he turns his head away, she makes a gasp of indignation at the hidden laughter that's no doubt there. "It's good! It's tragic, and I cry every time, but it's good."

"Doesn't sound like it."

"It is. You'll see."

"Hm." He peers over again while she takes a warm sip against the shivering dampness the snowflakes are starting to soak into her coat, hair. "Is everything on your bookshelves that dark?"

Karen's lips quirk and she feels particularly bold as they slow near the front of her apartment building. "You could check it out tomorrow and see for yourself."

Stepping around in front of her, they pause at the base of the steps. He finishes his cup before holding it down at his side, licking his lips after with a nose scrunch. She watches it in amusement before her eyes flick down to the puppy attempting to burrow further beneath his hoodie. Frank keeps his head partially ducked. "Curtis tried inviting me to hang out at some family and friends shindig but, uh. Didn't feel right. You know? David said they'd do dinner at their place, too, but...."

"It's awkward," she supplies.

He nods. Lifts his gaze up and then casts it down again. "Yeah."

She doesn't have to ask what he was doing last Christmas, the first without his family. She already knows. He'd left the city with a burnt shell of a house behind, starting on a fast track-down of three gangs' remnants, seemingly operating on little sleep and with no concept of a calendar. She remembers finding one vague report of a gunned down drug hideout on Valentine's Day. All the signatures were there -- the style, the known gang, the buried witness report of a skull vest.

It maybe not be his first Christmas after, but that won't make it any easier. She knows that part from experience, too, so she reaches a hand out to rub the puppy's ears. Frank's eyes flick up to her face again.

"Sadly, I don't make a fancy traditional dinner -- I order Chinese take-out. And you don't have to worry about the movie selection; I try to find something funny, not the cheesy romantic flicks. There's no presents you have to deal with reciprocating and I don't know if you've noticed, but there is a giant bag of assorted chocolates I'm gonna end up gifting to the office unless someone helps me get through them," she smiles. "So.... The invitation stands all day tomorrow if you decide you want some company.... Okay? No pressure, just...you know where I'll be."

He's got a crown of snowflakes on the rim of his ball-cap, but he lifts a hand to brush some away from her cheeks instead, tucking a loose strand or two of blonde behind her ear as she stills in shock. Karen stares at him as her heart stutters inside her chest.

After she swallows thickly, he licks his lips, tilting his head down again. With hands buried in her coat pockets, she pretends not to acknowledge the very real and very sudden urge right then to kiss him. "The dog's invited too, of course.... He really needs a name, Frank."

"Name means I'm keepin' him," he reminds reflexively.

Karen rolls her eyes. "You are going to. Just admit it."

He flashes another grin, tension washing away instantly, and before she registers it, they're sharing farewells and he's walking away. Sighing, she loiters long enough watching him disappear into the drifting white that the cold finally sends a shiver down her spine. She doesn't care.

She only wonders if he'll show.

 

 


 

part v — december 24th

 


 

 

The city's on the cusp of a full-out blizzard when Frank knocks around noon without warning, bag in tow.

"Dog food," he explains. She beams at the promise of a stay longer than an hour this time.

Three days in a row, showing up at her door like this -- they're treading dangerously close to this becoming a habit. But-- she can't expect that. It won't last, purely because they're in this calm lull of a holiday bubble right now where neither have anywhere and anything else wanting to attend to. It's only another series of stolen moments, no more and no less. Completely self-aware, she savors it.

He goes straight to her bookshelves as she closes the lid on her laptop, different Word document already open with notes on a new story in the quiet morning hours she had nothing else to distract her mind with. She lifts the puppy into her lap and he snuggles against her while she strokes his belly. He almost seems a bit bigger than before, but she only just saw him yesterday. She decides it's an illusion brought on by holding him for the first time as Frank slides the occasional book in and out to get a proper look at the cover.

"You can borrow any you want," she tells him.

He shakes his head, then pauses at one. Her old and battered copy of Moby Dick, a hardback missing its dust jacket. "You and Curtis got similar taste. This is the sixth title I've found here that he's lent me."

Karen tilts her head. "Really?"

"Mhm." He slides it back into place.

She returns her gaze to the puppy now gnawing harmlessly on her palm. "...That's not mine. It, um. It was my brother's. I've kept it with me since I came to New York."

"...Is he..."

When she looks over, Frank's staring at her with the question unsaid in his sympathetic eyes, dark and tentative. Already guessing at the truth. She nods. "Yeah. Almost eleven years ago."

"I'm sorry, Karen."

It's an apology everyone gives, so perhaps it shouldn't feel so special, but then-- she doesn't let just anyone know the truth. And it's not just anyone that she's sure really and truly understands that pain, that stares at her like he's seeing past all her walls and false positivity and spying the grief that maintains at a low tide within, that still has the power all these years later to drive her convictions forward and threaten to drown her every once in a while when everything almost becomes too heavy, too suffocating.

With a nod, she blinks back tears, and he turns away. A respectful minute passes before he speaks again, still going through the bookshelves slowly. Methodically. "You'd still get along with Curtis. Your collection's 'bout as diverse as his."

She lets loose a watery laugh and slides the puppy off her lap onto the couch before standing. "You want coffee, or a beer?"

 

 


 

 

 

Gradually, the day slips by as they discuss both everything and nothing, one or the other constantly saying something and filling up space between. Making up for all the silences of before now that they just have time

When he finally asks, question stuttered out in a way to make her think he's been keeping it bottled up all this time, she shares Ellison's disgruntled defensiveness at hearing her side of the hotel story that day. From there, he's amiably complaining about Lieberman treating him a bit too often like an over-protective dad, and every new comment from her prompts another hilarious anecdote of an example from him. He'd recognize the behavior loud and clear, after all, but the other man's in denial about it. Reasons they call each other 'asshole' and 'piece of shit' too often for that.

The two of them laugh. A lot.

At one point, after someone drives by blaring Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer obnoxiously, she has a trail of tears down her cheek and her stomach's aching, protesting for the right to breathe, and Frank's not quite all the way gone himself, but he gets close, too. Close enough that she's soon enthralled at how much his face wrinkles from laugh lines, how wide his mouth gets when he's happy for longer than a fleeting second, how bright his eyes can shine.

They lock stares a beat too long -- until the dog whines.

They take him out to pee before the sky opens up, dumping inch after inch of of snow across the streets.

It's declared a blizzard while they hole up without a care to the outside world with take-out spread liberally across the island counter-top. She leans across from one side, him from the other, and they split the food. She taps her chopsticks against his when he dives into the Lo Mein. "You said you didn't want it."

"Said I didn't want it when I was opening the Orange Chicken. Didn't know you were askin' for the rest of the night," he remarks with a look.

She keeps the chopsticks blocking his. "...Give me the extra egg roll?"

Frank licks his lips, smirk playing at the edges. "Tryin' to steal from me?"

"Negotiating," she teases.

His cheeks wobble, she presses her own lips tight, and they have a stand-off of holding in amusement and feigning seriousness before he relents after a few moments tick by, pushing the container with the extra roll towards her. She frees his chopsticks. "Okay," he says, voice pitched mockingly.

She bursts into a grin then against her will. He follows suit a split second later.

They use one of her bowls to feed the dog, and somehow, after the sun's set and they find Home Alone to run in the background, she starts scrolling through lists of names on her phone while he thumbs through one of her non-fiction books. A historical account of the House of Tudor. Frank makes his way through it following one folded corner to the next, as if he's attempting to decipher why she's bookmarked each page. She keeps glancing at the dog and comparing him with each new set of names.

"What about Blue? That's cute."

"You're not naming the dog."

She ignores him. "Diesel? That could be funny."

"Karen."

"Or Shadow," she says, adding a stage-whisper to the end.

The dog sniffs at one of the low-hanging ornaments. Frank just takes another drag from his beer.

"We'll save that one and come back to it."

"No, we're not," he states flatly, flipping through the pages of the book again.

Unfolding her legs from underneath herself, she props them over his lap purely out of irritating protest as she hums. "That 'we' was between me and the puppy."

Frank wraps a hand around her ankle, and she has half a moment of tensing, thinking he's about to tease her right back by tugging on her leg or something, but that never comes. His thumb strokes measured, soothing circles along the sensitive skin above her heel. She forgets to breathe for a minute.

The puppy disappears underneath the chair following a scent trail.

When her phone's screen turns off due to lack of use, Karen blinks her fuzzy brain into focus and unlocks it again. She shouldn't, but she reaches for her own beer again, too.

"Top name last year was Max," she points out as one of the attempted burglars on the TV screams in pain at the kid.

Frank pauses, takes another drink. "...Not bad."

She grins.

They drink through most of her beer -- which, to be fair, isn't all that much, and it is over the course of several hours -- before they have to take the dog out again while the city's blanketed in darkness. Snow's still coming down, wind picking up harsh enough to whip the snowflakes into flurries here and there along the street. Frank doesn't seem all that fazed, but she feels like she's freezing down to her bone marrow.

The dog, at least, shares her plight.

As soon as he's done peeing, Karen tugs off her heavy scarf and wraps him in it for extra protection before Frank zips him up inside his jacket and they walk the block back to her building. By the time they're inside again, she's chattering her teeth and feels cold at her core, chill running through every vein. She's just grabbing an extra fleece blanket to curl up in from her hall closet when he steps right alongside her, draping a hand towel over her head.

His hands cup the back of her neck, fingers behind her ears, and she's not sure if he gently moved her or she simply turned to meet him, but then she's facing him and he's slowly massaging her scalp. She notices how warm he is, again. Can't help stepping closer to it.

Frank pools the towel around her neck, lifting her hair out from underneath it without a single tug on her scalp. "You should wear a hat next time," he says quietly.

She blinks, no longer trembling. "Thanks." Her voice comes out faint.

His eyelashes drop, gaze on her parting lips.

They don't kiss.

They stand there, urge flaring up at the back of her head again. First time was a fluke of adrenaline, she thought, in the elevator, and the second time just the day before was a bout of loneliness, surely, but this? Three times -- that meant something. Three times formed habits, negated coincidences.

They don't kiss, but she's certain they're both thinking about it as they keep glancing between lips and eyes and back again. A silent question for permission in one look. Hesitation about what happens after in another.

Gradually, they move apart. She sheds her coat over a chair next to his and he fetches the last of the beers, helping the pup up onto the chair so he can curl into a pillow. Karen rubs his ears as she steps past.

This time, she hesitates propping her legs up after Frank passes a beer over. He tugs on her ankle after she settles them near, startling her as she suddenly finds herself sliding over, length of her legs thrown across his lap. She squeaks. A breathy chuckle escapes him. "You gonna hog that blanket all by yourself?" He asks.

Embarrassed blush spreading across her skin, she tosses it in his face. "I think I might now."

"Mhm," he hums, disbelieving as he spreads it out.

It's almost awkward, almost uncomfortable, but he's got so much heat radiating off of him that she can't help throwing caution to the wind and shifting a few moments later until she's curving against his shoulder, fleece tucked up underneath her chin. She keeps one arm out for her beer. He does the same.

"Never seen this movie."

"You've never seen Elf?!"

A thrum of a laugh that doesn't make it to his throat vibrates from his chest and through her back. "Nope."

When he pops the 'p', she rests her forehead against his neck and sighs. "Okay, I'm using my pick on this one. Don't touch the remote."

"Yes, ma'am."

After he takes a sip, his arm underneath the blanket slips from behind her back, wrapping loosely around her waist. She finds his hand with her own, pausing before gradually sliding palm over palm when he opens it slightly. He squeezes his fingers around hers.

For the first time in a long time, she realizes she's ringing in a new Christmas without a spell of loneliness. She stops thinking about tomorrow, about the next tragedy that'll come into her life, and focuses on the here and now. What matters most.

She sinks into his embrace and lets peace consume her.

 

 


 

epilogue — december 25th 

 


 

 

 

Slowly, a persistent brightness prods her awake.

Karen resists it with a groan and buries her head further against her pillow. Soft hair replaces the expected cushioned cotton.

She blinks and raises her head.

Still on the couch, blue light illuminates the dark room in an almost neon glow as the TV screen shines out a blank screen, box turning off who knows how long ago after hours of inactivity. The puppy's in the same position as before, curled in a ball on a pillow in the chair, she spies, and Frank--

Frank is in her lap.

She blinks again, more clear-headed now as she squints.

He's not actually on her lap -- her legs are curled up against his thighs, same as earlier -- but the blanket's fallen to pool at her feet as her back's gone from resting straight and instead she's slumped crooked, half-leaning down against the couch's arm. His body heat is more than enough to keep her comfortable as he holds her within his arms and she does the same, practically tucking him against her shoulder as she'd buried her head against his and the nape of his neck. She tries to recall how they ended up like this but it's a blur of contentment, alcohol, and sleepiness.

She'd always been a clingy sleeper and thinks now that perhaps she should've warned him about that when it became clear he was staying for the night, that she wasn't going to kick him out, and especially when, as one movie marathon turned into three, an ever-stronger chance grew that neither of them would end up even moving off the couch. Cautiously, she lessens her grasp on him and removes the weight of one of her limbs completely.

He only tightens his grip in subconscious protest.

A small, fond grin curves the edges of her lips.

Guess it didn't matter that she didn't warn him, then. He slept the same way.

Karen reaches her nearest arm over to the edge of the couch cushions, fumbles with the remote. It takes her a minute to find the right button. The screen flickers black, only glow left in the room from the dim yellow Christmas lights wrapped around the tree, as faint as the street lamps below the window. A much better alternative.

Gently, she rests her arm across his back once again, settling more comfortably against the couch cushions. He breathes out slowly. The steady rise and fall of his chest against hers lulls her, eyes hooded in a fast minute before slipping closed. It's no doubt past midnight by now, her last memory of looking to the clock at some time past eleven.

She tilts her head to the side against his, burying her closest hand into his hair. He was growing it out a bit, again. She likes it.

"Merry Christmas, Frank," she murmurs softly.

To her surprise, he shifts, moving his cheek slightly off her shoulder and pulls her closer, away from the edge. "Mm. Mer' Chris'mas, Karen."