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Dance Macabre

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Frank Castle died violently. How he lived. How he continues to live. Sitting across from her over the remnants of breakfast, all flesh and blood and wrenching eyes, he looks so unlike a ghost. So unlike the moniker that belongs to him now. So unlike he's seen the face of Hell. But he has.

Figuratively, and now it seems literally, he has.

He doesn’t wait to tell Karen the story. It comes right out of him, a flood that bubbles and stumbles over an uneven path, accelerating as it goes. Unstoppable, coming to drown her. She gasps through all of it, stutters, chokes, stares. There’s nothing else she can do but that, and listen. And feel her heart break apart.

“I was coming back from a site,” he begins, “late. Pulled some overtime. Still couldn’t get my head quiet, decided I’d walk home. It was that building in Queens I was on—hell, they’re probably still working that job. Pretty long walk.

“Maybe ten minutes along I came up on this bus stop, edge of this quiet neighborhood. But you know, all the crazies that have come out of the woodwork since that last round of shit with aliens, so half the lights are knocked out, looks like crap. And on the bench is this little kid. He had to be what, ten? All by himself, holding onto this backpack, trying to ignore these four older kids—19 or 20 tops—giving him a hard time. I knew if I went over there, how I was feeling—I told myself I’d wait. Four-foot rule: they get any closer than that, lay a hand on him, I was gonna go decorate the curb with their teeth. Until then, stay back back.

"This kid sat there for something like 20 minutes being taunted. Three buses go by. Finally, on the last one, this lady gets out, she’s in a nurse’s scrubs, right age right look, had to be his mother. She pretty much jumps off that bus, gets that kid up under her arm, but it doesn’t help. Hell, it just makes it worse.”

He talks with an absent, reflective look on his face. Like he’s reviewing a movie. Like he just finished a book.

“These assholes start going after her, asking her shit like ‘lady you know what a MILF is,’ that kind of thing. So, I walked up, got in their little ringleader’s face, told them to back off. They turned tail with that look on their face like they were going to jump me later—fine by me. Could use the exercise, you know?” 

He looks at her ruefully. Karen can’t find it in herself to laugh.

“Maybe not.”

She closes her eyes for a long moment. When she opens them he's talking at the table.

“This lady doesn’t know me, but I offered to walk them home. Seemed smart. She went ahead and took me up on it. It was maybe . . . Eight blocks to her place. Alley side of this front/back duplex what was probably one house in 1920 whatever. And in the back of this alley, shit, I didn’t see it coming. Figured the kids would catch up to me, but . . .

“But we get there. They're three yards from their front door, and there's this scrawny fucking kid from the bus stop holding a Glock like he thinks he's in a movie.”

Oh, God. Frank's gaze shifts to the wall—anywhere but Karen's face. Don’t tell me this. I can't stand this. Don't—

But she remembers the headline, run across her desk for review because she'd been too deep into some other justice seeking expose to write it herself. She thinks she knows how this story ends. Don’t tell me how this ends.

“The kid . . . I told him to fuck off, he wanted me, come get me. Leave mom and little kid out of it. And he. He looks at me like a starved animal and he goes ‘nah, nah. Going through you looks like more fun.’ And he looks over her shoulder and says this is his game but no use in running, his crew is back there or he's bluffing, either way her best bet is to run for her door. And me, I don’t have a gun but I’m thinking get them down, feint and roll, come up and kick his ribs in, blow his fucking head off with that stupid Glock. . . But I never even had the chance. Bastard aims for mom behind me, she’s leaning toward her house so ready to make that run for it. I see his finger on the trigger and stepped back in front of her—that move doesn't work so well without the vest, as it turns out. Bad aim, nonlethal shot to the chest. Coulda been worse. But wasn’t good.”

Don’t tell me this. Don’t make me imagine this—

“But it was the best I had at that point. I ran them toward their stairs, he unloads half a magazine, clips mom, gets my shoulder, side. Gut shot from the wrong direction—I knew how fucked I was. Bad news for him, I was thinking. Got nothing to lose now.

“I pushed mom and the kid toward the stairs and went for him, soak up some more bullets--fucking coward just runs. And shoots twice. Not at me. I’ve got this lag, body trying for shock, can’t get turned fast enough--"

Karen covers her mouth to hold back a scream, a sob. She doesn’t even know which. I read this story. I read this story. Frank talks steadily to her kitchen wall.

"Fucking bastard. Shots weren’t for me. Mom goes down on top of the kid. She's out or she's dead, I don’t know. So I come at him, thinking I'll get that couple of shots left into my hands. Just ran for it. Bulldozed him. And shit, I could see him panic. Went low, gave him shit shots. Grazed my head, one of my eyes goes black but I’m coming for him . . . And the coward, he pussies out, you know? Yells and tries to bolt, I’m thinking from me, this is his fight, he wants to win it himself just can't believe I'm still up, but . . ."

But there's no honor among thieves.

“’Guess he changed his mind.”

“Frank—" she croaks. His head inclines, releases, like a tick. He looks over her head. Down. Frank—

“Took three or four shots to the back. Went down like a sack of bricks, useless. I couldn’t,” he finally looks at her and Karen wishes he wouldn’t, that look in his eyes, the tragedy of Frank Castle, wrenching tears from her on sight. She can’t look at him, now. She closes lids over the tears, puts her face in her hands. She’s not sure she's saying “no” out loud or just thinking it.

"It's pretty dark then, but I can hear the kid swearing. Yelling. 'Finish it and run,' 'no witnesses,' ‘you fucked up man,” and then more shots, I don’t know how many. Enough. Enough. That lady, her little boy—"

'Double Homicide in Queens Appears Random.' That headline. That headline. That headline. The two found riddled with bullets, sprawled across their stairs. Feet from the safety of the front door. But nobody wrote about—

“I was still trying to get up though. Still twitching. Thinking I'd do anything to punish these monsters, anything to wipe them off the Earth . . . They say you don’t hear the bullet that gets you, but I did. More than one. Made the head. Last thought is what I wouldn’t do to obliterate them—goes dark feels like drowning, then burning, and then I swear I could hear someone asking if I'd really do anything. Yeah I would. Yeah, I would."

No. This can't . . .

But it did. It has. She's seen it. The words are still leaking from Frank like an arterial wound.

“I came to however long after, days, maybe, time doesn’t . . . Move, where I was, it just . . . But I come to outside this warehouse where those fucks are camping out like they’re hot shit. Like they didn't just steal a couple of innocent lives for sport, like-- It was these four assholes plus two more that weren’t there, but I wasn’t driving. I was just putting them in the sights. And I could see this worthless senseless waste of human skin where they should have souls and . . . I didn't know what I was, or how I was,  but I looked into them and they screamed and I just . . .  shit. I guess I let the dog off the chain.”

He looks directly into Karen’s eyes. For the first time she can feel the inner scalding of the rider looking at Frank. She could peel her skin off just to get it out, the heat, the knowing and being known, her buffet of sin in front of him with his own name front and center—

“I burned the place to ash. The building. People. Their shit, all of it. And that pretty much catches you up.”

‘Warehouse Fire leaves No Evidence Behind.’

She saw this.

All of this. Saw it from a distance in headlines.

And she didn’t even know.

Karen, a killer, remembers for the hundredth time that reminder in faded roadside letters. HELL IS REAL.

But of all the things that could damn her, being nowhere to be found, not being there for him when he did this, when he agreed to deal with, with—

“I didn’t know,” she whispers. "Oh, God. I didn't even know."

Surely, out of all the many things that could damn her, that must be her greatest sin.

Chapter Text

Interlude

THE OTHER

The articles stop coming, but somehow, that doesn’t exactly make him feel better. If Karen Page had any bylines at all that’d be tolerable. Disappearing from the face of the Earth? Less so.

He stares into the circa 2009 interface of the go phone in his hand, its blocky shape at odds with the faint white scars curling on his palm, and swears. But there's nothing else for it. He dials.

“New York Daily Bulletin, how may I direct your call?”

*

When Karen had been able to stand that morning in the kitchen, she'd gone to Frank and embraced him before he could get up, holding his head to her chest that he might hear her broken heart, tears running down into his hair. She wanted to smack him. She wanted to be held by him. There were not enough apologies. There were not enough words. There were not enough languages in the world to convey the strangeness of this lost and found feeling, and the fear of damnation creeping into her. The angels that had always scared her, yes—but it seems now she should have listened to their terrible warnings out the preacher's mouth. Or maybe not. Maybe there is no preparation for this. Maybe Hell is the truth.

When Frank had finally talked her out of “I’m sorries,” for that morning, she’d told him he was an idiot.

“What kind of deal, what were you thinking? If Hell, if Hell is real and, and you— then you’re going to be—”

“What, damned? Already there, Karen. Trust me on that.”

She’d had to walk away. Cry in the shower. Try and remember how to pray.

From that morning they spent five days together re-learning how to speak. Where words failed, she listened to his heartbeat, hammering out a rhythm steadier than gunfire and louder than alive.

On day three, holding her what would be bridal style if they weren’t sitting down, “S’not the worst deal. This is worth it.” At that point, she’d still been able to answer only with the groaned hybrid of pity and flippancy that masks a pang in the heart, and the mix of wanting to punch him and wanting to cry in her expression brought out his most rueful smile.

By day five, however, normalcy has finally started to taste a little less like bitter tin, so She's watching TV while he reads, his head in her lap, relaxed and so, so achingly normal, when her phone calls her to the outside world.

I'm not ready for this . . .

But she answers Ellison's call anyway.

“Hey, Karen. How are you doing?”

“Uhmm, better. A little shaken up but I'm getting over it.” she'd told him about being in the pub the night the rider struck. She’d brought him a hurried story about it. He'd ordered, immediately, a mandatory period of PTO. Fine by her.  It saved her from having to come up with a better reason for disappearing for an indeterminates amount of time.

“Why,” she replies, trying to smile into the phone, “am I invited back?” As if I want to be. As if the idea of leaving Frank’s side weren’t repulsive.

“You’ve been invited, actually,” Ellison replies, “I just wasn’t going to tell you that. That story you ran? Great stuff, but your knack for getting almost killed, I swear to god Karen, you’re taking years off my life here.”

“Sorry, not sorry?”

She can practically hear him shaking his head through the phone.

“Of course not. Anyway: I thought you’d want to know there's a call-in tip with your name on it exclusively. I’ve got the number for you if you want to follow up at home, provided you promise not to run any sting ops on this one.”

“Oh, come on, I was just--"

“Don’t even start. You set yourself up to get that story, you know it, I know it. Now, can I give you this number with a clear conscious or not?”

Frank is sitting up, watching her. She swallows back the lump of having to very possibly leave his side.

“I'll take it to see if I know it. If not, I guess I’m coming into the office.”

“Don’t stress yourself out, come in when you're up for it. I doubt there’s all that much of a rush on it if he was willing to leave a message. Anyway, here it is . . .”

She throws Ellison on speakerphone to jot the number down. Frank all but stops breathing beside her, rendering himself invisible to the other end of the call. They’re used to this routine.

When she hangs up, a ferociously worried look is in his eyes and the set of his brows.

“What’s that about?”

“Apparently I have a new secret admirer. If I went to work . . . Would you be here when I got back?”

Frank answers silence and a sidelong glance.

Frank.”

“If that’s really what you want., yeah. Yeah. Might have to leave for a night shift soon as you get back, but I'll be here.”

Have to?”

“Got an itch doesn't like going too long without a scratch.”

She closes her eyes against the implications of the hungry look that underlies his going, and all the emotional exhaustion that is loving him.

“Then I guess . . . a kiss on your way out will have to be close enough.”

That I can most definitely do.”

*

The number Ellison gave her leads nowhere on its own, probably a burner phone, so Karen does indeed take the precaution of calling it from work.

The phone rings three times, apparently doomed to go to voicemail, before a frazzled male voice comes through the fuzzy line. Not fuzzy enough to hide a Brooklyn-incarnate accent or the way an average voice pitches up with flustered shortness, but garbled in quality. She can't pin an age by the voice, but he probably isn’t any older than his 50s or 60s, for all the good that profile does her.

“Hello?”

“This is Karen Page with the Daily Bulletin, am I speaking to a mister . . . Dan . . . Kale?”

Of all the pseudonyms. This should be fun.

“Ah, yeah, yeah, that's me,” he clears his throat. “Pleasure.”

“I hope so. What can I help you with, Mr. Kale? I understand you have a tip for me?”

“Just one: do yourself a favor, and back off the Ghost Rider stories. Trust me, you do not--"

Karen makes no effort to disguise her scowl in her voice.

“Ok, Mr. Kale, I'm going to stop you right there.”

Look, for--"

“Don't say ‘for my own good.’ I've heard enough of that to last me a lifetime and I have far better things to do than listen to it from some potential wacko I don’t know from Adam who uses a lettuce as his alias. If you're going to threaten me, just get to the point. If you have information for me, we can talk. Anything else and I hang up this phone and calls go to voicemail. Is that clear?”

Silence but for static is all the phone produces for a long moment. The start of a word fizzles out. A sigh prefaces the next slow attempt at an answer.

“Ok. Let me back up. I'm calling to warn you off of this, but the trade is information for your own curiosity if you want it. If you could humor me long enough to tell you why I'm not just talking out my ass here, then you can hang up if you're still sure that's what you want to do.”

“No go. I don't take warnings, threats, lectures, or tips from anyone on their word. If you have something, you have something, and I'm all ears. Otherwise, call over. Ill hang up whenever I like.”

The phone line crackles. Karen fiddles with the pen in her hand, tracing the shape of her leg onto her notepad, half seated on her desk. Give me something to tell me whether you're going to be a problem for me. God knows when it comes to the rider, she no longer lacks a source.

This isn’t the first rider in New York, how about that?”

"I knew that. I also know the last one to make the rounds was a fixture in what I'm guessing was your neighborhood in the 90s. I do my research, Mr. Kale.”

Then you wouldn’t be surprised if I said id seen these things very. Very. Up close and personal. Lady--"

So have I. Or maybe you missed last Thursdays paper.”

Oh, come on. Please. Look--"

“You look. tell me one thing I don’t know, and make it good.”

He does know his stuff. If he’d only called weeks ago, he could have saved her some serious driving. So why now?

That’s the bait. By good she means immediate. The question is whether he can figure that out.

I’m not going to guess what you already know,” he retorts. “but I can tell you what’s going to happen: if you don’t drop this, if it gets attention outside of New York, you're going to be responsible for a hell of a smackdown in this city's back yard.”

“And you can guarantee that how?”

The phone line sits quiet long enough for the grinding of teeth.

Let's just say I know a guy.”

Karen shifts on her desk.

“Now that is a tip.”

Don't even dream.”

Reclining and crossing her legs, bouncing her foot in nervous anticipation of victory, Karen waits.

“You've got to give me something, Kale.”

Though he must pull the phone away from his ear judging by the echoing indistinct sound, Karen thinks she can hear him swear.

I'm trying to do all of us a favor over here. The best thing for everyone is that thing gets bored and heads out of town before someone comes and cleans it up.”

Karen's crossed legs flop free of each other like flaccid spaghetti. Her grip on her desk, sudden and steadying, feels as though it may peel off her fingernails.

“And who do you think could do that?”

Can you kill something already dead?

The line hangs empty.

“Kale.”

Remember how there's more than one?”

*

Frank comes home at dawn, finding Karen up with the sun running the name Kale through a compulsively bought and paid for ancestry.com account. She hears the bike roll up before his key finds the door, and she knows he's coming.

“Thank God,” she blurts as he comes in.

“Not exactly.”

Karen groans, though she finds herself distracted by his apparel too quickly to retort.

“Ok, hold up. Who . . . drove last night?”

“Bit of both, why?”

“I’m wondering if that has something to do with the fact you’re wearing a chain.”

Frank glances groggily at his shoulder, around which is slung industrial grade chain long enough to wrap three or four times from shoulder to waist and back.

“I have no idea,” he mutters. “I get the feeling it’s a hell of a toy. Any perps with this burned into them, let me know . . . This thing doesn’t get tired, went longer than I did. I don’t remember details.”

“The spirit can . . . keep going . . . without you.” That cannot be good. She doesn’t need to say it, she knows the look she gives him speaks volumes: that can’t be right.

Frank averts his gaze and looks hollow eyed at the chain around his shoulder.

“When I let it, if it’s hungry.”

“Rabid dog?”

“Yeah, that.”

Karen turns slowly in her chair. His sigh says he knows the look on her face. She can see empty assurances forming on his pretty lips. Her stomach riots at the thought of hearing them.

She vomits other words before he can offer condolences she knows will ring hollow. Its better that way.

“I didn’t get a chance to tell you about that tip last night.”

“Sorry. Had to get out.”

“I know. Well, maybe I don’t. But you should know that this guy was trying to chase me off rider stories, and he claims to have it on good authority some other spirit is going to want to take a bite out of you.”

“Good luck to them,” he scoffs, dumping jacket and chain in his favorite chair and trudging zombified with sleeplessness toward the bathroom.

“Frank.”

“Karen—"

Could another spirit hurt yours?”

His gaze flicks inward, that heat under her skin speaks to the wordless knowing running through him, tangible in the room.

“Maybe.”

“Then this Kale guy is credible?”

A look of mild revulsion twists Frank's face, lips pursed as if to hold back vomit.

“Don’t know if I’d go that far. I’ll believe it when I see it . . . But, that name is familiar. Spirit’s not fond of it, either.”

Karen lays her head across her keyboard.

“I thought it was an alias, but if that’s the case, maybe he’s not completely full of it,” she grumbles into the plastic.

“Doesn’t mean you have to give him the time of day. You got your answers, Karen. I’m right here.”

And what if that’s not enough?  She is not losing Frank twice—whether by death, nor slow consumption by the hellfire inside him.

None of this feels right.

*

Working with the only, remote, unlikely hint she has and a spontaneously bought and paid Ancestry.com account, Karen discovered by noon that the name Kale appears in intermittent death records originating in colonial Virginia. Years intermittent, long lived figure after long lived figure occasionally punctuated by staccato deaths by no more than 20.  It ends with a Jennifer, her birth record putting her just older than Karen. Her profile paints her immediate family in the sad light of die young parents and cousins with hidden last names.

One if them is a Daniel.

Daniel K., Barbara K., and John B. Three kids, same parents. Different names. The oldest—oldest by a long shot, too—took dad's name, the younger mom's? But there is no Daniel Kale from Brooklyn in any record she can find. So either he doesn’t exist, or K isn’t for Kale. That would at least explain his fool's choice in alias, spit out one thing to keep the other from emerging out of habit, keep one letter and cover ass. That his mother's name would pop into his head as a haphazard alias backpedal wouldn’t be unreasonable. But then what the hell is your name, and why is it different?

 He and his sister both. Barbara K. The only sibling with a death and birth date: she hadn’t lived long enough to graduate high school . . . Karen can feel the freefall of her sinking heart. Obituaries are bad enough when they don’t belong to kids. But she knows where she’s looking next.

*

Karen Page, why the hell are you calling me?” Doctor Duran greets her.

“A two second question to follow up on that chat we had about cemetery-dwelling hellions.”

That thing again, huh? Any idea if it's going to quit dropping weirdness in my morgue?  Got one this morning with the tissues of the neck burned almost totally away, about took the head off. I’m sure the feds will be all under my feet about it within the hour.”

“Sorry, no go.” Karen replies, trying to sound suitably sympathetic, “I’m still looking for answers, too.

Doctor Duran sighs so heavily and theatrically into the phone its almost, almost comedic. But Karen stifles all laughter. Of the things this contact of hers will tolerate, that doesn’t seem like one of them.

A lot of help you are, lately. But all right, what is it?”

“Just a follow up about growing up in the cypress hill area: do you by chance recall a Barbara Ketch? I’m looking into deaths along the—this thing’s timeline and I found an article in a local paper about her death relating to an incident in that same cemetery.”

And now you’re wondering if that thing killed her? Hah!” she makes a noise like an error buzzer on a game show. “Nope, no way. I lived up the street from those people, I heard bits of what happened to Barb, nothing supernatural about it, just good old New York gangsterism and nasty crossfire. If you don’t want to take my word for it, you could probably still canvas that neighborhood and hear the same story plus a bunch of old gossip about how bad it screwed up her little brother, but I promise it'd be a waste of time.”

“Daniel Ketch, right?”

That’s the one. Poor kid was there that night, too, guess he got lucky.”

Or not lucky at all, the thought blurts unbidden into her mind, requiring a mental kick to chase it off. Leaping to strange conclusions won’t help anyone, however deep the seed wants to dig.

“I think I’ll pass on twenty-year-old gossip, actually,” she tells the doctor. “But thanks. Give me a call if you need an extra set of research hands—now I owe you one.”

Give me one good brainstorm about what evenly severs a guy's neck with heat all the way around other than me having to write ‘flaming ghost strangulation' into this report and we'll call it even. There's zilch for indications of cutting or sawing, just applied heat. Seems obvious if you’ve got a suspect in mind, but suspects aren’t my job. But, go figure, ‘something hot applied to the neck’ isn’t exactly going to keep me employed, so, you wanna give me a creative turn of phrase to work with I’m all ears.”

Frank's chain piled on the chair not five feet from her, Karen winces. I could do better than brainstorm. But she settles with a half-true suggestion.

“I don’t know, maybe something like a superheated garrote wire? “

Bigger than wire, but good ring to it . . . I'll accept it. Pattern’s just slightly asymmetrical, that’s consistent with an overlapping strings, some kind of noose . . . and sounds so much better than you and I know damn well it is . . . Yeah, Goo-girl, call us even.”

“Always glad for your help, doctor.” Even with something as simple as confirming a name.  Ketch. Daniel and Barbara Ketch, closed adoption, 1977.

This she can raise hell with.

Chapter Text

Interlude

THE RIDER

The body tires. The heart and soul want. But there is no sleep. There is no rest. There are no limits.

Souls full of sin scald from the inside—a very few courtesy of bullets. Revenge. The heart. A wound of the soul's mind unhealed by Hell, Vengeance’s ad infinitum fuel.

*

Karen stops taking calls from that evening through the next two and a half weeks. That’s how Frank long disappears into bone and flame, all apologies but all itching to get out. She stops responding to messages while he’s gone, period. Including from Ketch though her nights are full of imaginings, mysteries, concept after concept and timeline after timeline drawn out in her mind until the seed of instinct take too deep a root to ignore. As if to know the end of the Kale line were to know the end of Vengeance.

By day, she simply writes the news.

Sometimes it’s about the rider. Burns, groveling sinners, acts of retribution that leave parolees husks, leave CEOs turned kings penniless and begging for the weight of their workers' struggle to ease, that decimate local gangs and see three more drug operations obliterated, those are the spirit.

Retribution for crimes against humanity, where the victims wish no ill will, had no time to before dying, or have been too broken—a stream of pedophiles and rapists and human traffickers, abusers—that leave bodies, those are Frank.

Ellison does not allow her anywhere near the headline about a reemerging Punisher MO, and she's relieved not to have it.

Frank finally stumbles home at dawn on her day off after precisely 18 days. He comes in croaking her name like he's just been asphyxiated and is still de-collapsing his vocal chords.

“Finally,” she breathes, launching herself from her bed to his side. He won’t lean on her. He isn’t hurt—so the opposite. But his gaze is hollow and his steps drag to the point of tripping him. He only makes it as far as the couch.

“Jesus, Frank, you look like you haven’t slept in a month.” Karen squats beside the couch, her hand on his knee, just level with his splayed palm. He turns his hand to muster a weak sweep of her hair before his head falls back and his eyes fall shut.

“Close,” he rattles, “spirit doesn't sleep. Doesn’t wait for a nap when my turn is up, either.”

“Your turn? First it’s running on its own, now it’s taking whole shifts?”

I thought you could control it, tell me you can still control it—

Tell me this isn’t all there can be for you.

Frank shakes his head and speaks to the ceiling.

“’S not like that.”

“Then how is it, Frank?”

“It’s not human,” he slurs. “Just made from it. Gets hungry. Kind of hunger . . .  Doesn’t matter if you can pull it back, because you want to feed it. Sometimes you want it off the chain. I give the turns.”

Karen pulls herself onto the couch alongside him. Somehow, she isn’t feeling terribly consoled.

“Because that makes this ok? Taking turns dolling out vengeance and punishment until your body can’t take it anymore?”

“More like my mind,” he snorts. “Thing can’t strategize on its own, no guidance system, no focus. I gotta be in there somewhere. I drop out, it hears everything, sees everything, no clue where to start, it’s,  it’s like a bomb going off. No limits—” against what? “I keep it human. Keep it from doing everything it can do. Making a scene. Shit, no one wants that. It doesn’t have time for that. It needs an anchor.”

Karen sighs, aware of his hand sliding toward her thigh, seeking her own resting palm.

“So it lets you rest once you’re useless to it.”

He makes a non-committal noise and drags his eyelids open long enough to look at her.

“It is what it is, Karen. Don’t poke at it, you don’t want to hear it, yeah?”

Does it have to be? Is there no way out? Three times now she’s seen him in the spirit’s aftermath, and so far, every time is worse.

What if there were?

Say, some method, perfected by someone out there, of getting it to shut up from say, 1999 to 2018. If someone might, might know—

Sensing her unsettled thoughts, perhaps, Frank pulls her gracelessly into him, and she wraps her arm around his waist, pressing her ear to the sound of his heart. The only sound for a long time before she has to break the quiet.

“Frank?”

He jolts a little, awoken from a surface level depth of sleep.

“Is this thing a deal, or a punishment?”

“little of both,” he murmurs, relaxing back into his partial sleep. She doesn’t speak again. But that Dan Ketch timeline is running in her head again to a soundtrack of what if what if what if. Of how do I save him from this.

Karen turns him on the couch once he's well and truly out, pulling off his jacket and boots and setting them kindly aside before draping a blanket over him, but she's too awake now to join him in sleeping in. So she sits beside him, in his favorite chair, mind turning cartwheels over what it means to be damned. About Frank's burning soul, about her own sins slithering beneath her skin, and whether the likes of her could ever hope to save the soul of the likes of him.

Arriving at nothing but nausea, she turns to more tired research. Any reason, any sign, that anyone in existence might stand a chance at such a task. Or, at the very least, some sign of how to deal with other angry spirits that might want to mess with him in the meantime.

Every road leads to a pushy voice through a fizzling burner phone.

Her heart strangling under the grip of feeling, her stomach churning, she can only hope this upstart—this no one from Brooklyn with an ancient family—is really where to look for answers when the questions banging around in her head include everything from can a soul be saved before it’s consumed to can a dead man die again. Questions seeing Frank again only escalate in urgency . . . If she doesn’t start asking somebody and soon—however much of a gamble it may be—she’ll lose either Frank, her mind, or both.

*

Proof of serendipity if not a forgiving god, Daniel Ketch walks into her office in person, far better than a phone call, the next day she's in.

“Karen. Your Kale tip is in the lobby. Security?” Ellison at once declares and asks, sticking his head through her door.

“Wow, he read my mind.”

“Karen . . . “

“It’s fine. Bring him in. Security can wait outside.”

“Why do j feel like this is a really stupid move?” he presses, not really asking at all. Lines crease his forehead too deeply for his middle age.

“Because it is. But I’ve been meaning to follow up with him anyway—call it a sign.”

“You’re killing me Page. Years off my life here.”

“I’ll owe you coffee?”

Ellison just snorts, and retreats, grumbling all the way so as to be heard down the hall. But he makes the call to bring up her guest nevertheless.

The man security tails to her office strikes her immediately as the knows-more-than-he-says sneak he is, not because of his tired, disgruntled expression, because of his stiff posture, nor because he takes up more room than someone of his average height should. No, the real give away is his age. This man should be 46. He looks almost younger than her.

She motions him to the couch as she closes the door on security.

“Have a seat, Mr. Ketch. It is Ketch, isn’t it?”

He goes rigid as a railroad spike. Brows a shade darker than his brown-red hair and heavy with thought fly up his forehead.

“I—did—what?”

“I do my research. Have a seat and buckle up, and lets see how well I’ve done. I think you really may have something for me, provided I’m understanding you correctly.

Ketch drops like a sack of potatoes onto the couch.

“You . . . are kidding me.”

Karen leans back against her desk. “You wish I were. Now how about I tell you a little about yourself, and you tell me if I’m right?”

Ketch drops his face into his hands. He wears a glove on one. Barely audible, muffled by leather and skin, she thinks she can make out Fucking. Ghost riders.  But when he lifts his eyes again, he offers her only a resigned “Ok, fire away.”

“Don’t mind if I do.”

He has a personality under the unnatural youthfulness, he rolls his eyes. Karen refuses to even blink.

“Right,” she declares airily. “Here’s what I know: you come from a long line of Kales with unusual lifespans, not a coincidence, I don’t think. But, you were separated by that family via adoption in 1977, along with your sister Barbara. You lived at 1780 James street until leaving in late 1992, despite not starting college until nearly ‘95. Maybe it was grief—I know,” she can feel the softening of her voice, and in the name of honesty, doesn’t try to hide it, “what it’s like to lose a sibling.”

“Sorry for your loss.”

“Yours as well.”

A beat of tense quiet before she can clear her throat and continue.

“But,” she says, “maybe something else. In any case, you fell off the map for several years, an interesting contrast with tour high school years: dating the daughter of then police chief in the precinct where the Ghost Rider liked to lurk accounts for maybe 40 percent of the occurrences of your name or neighborhood in Ghost Rider related police reports through 1997.

“But of course, that still leaves the other 60.”

She waits the duration of a long breath to see if his cagey expression will be the vanguard for anything to say. How am I doing so far, huh? She almost taunts. But she is, at the end of the day, a professional. An exhausted, overstressed, murderer-loving professional who’s allowed herself a near-delusion where the man before is concerned as an act of desperation. But she’s still getting to that.

A slightly revolted look on Ketch’s face flattens out into a scowl in this window of silence.

“You gonna tell me about that other 60 percent, or are you finally done?”

There it is. The challenge. The dare. Show me how crazy you are, he’s eyes say, and let me prove you right, his unlined face adds.

“I have some ideas,” Karen starts, smoothly, as if she weren’t about to either poke a bear or make an ass of herself, “about what I think happened here to account for the vast majority of these occurrences, yes. Bear with me if you would—”

Ketch scoffs. But his expression says fight or flight. Please choose flight, please choose flight—

“The fact is this: a spirit of vengeance emerged in 1990 immediately following the murder of Barbara ketch,” Ketch starts so hard he about hops off the couch.

Spirit--?!”

She ignores him.

“Fact two: for the next decade, it stayed near you and your adoptive parents the vast majority of the time, maybe constantly, perhaps reverting to a human form periodically explaining the lack of reports for weeks or months at a time. Consistent with the on and off census data of your ancestors, by the way.”

Now he’s gone pale.

“Which just leaves one question: who were you to the spirit of vengeance for it to be so attached?”

“That’s a lot of assumption,” Ketch chokes, but the poor man has an abysmal poker face.

“I prefer to think of it as journalistic insight.”

A momentary silence reigns again, hazel eyes fixed on blue as offensive defense. He finally asks “well, what’s the insight then, sherlock?” and straightens in his seat after a suitable stare down, as if there were any hope of chasing her off now. There isn’t. She’s too far gone.

I need what I think is true, to be true.

Frank needs it.

So she lets the bomb drop.

“Well, I went back and forth,” she says, stunned at her own levity when her heart is beating like an overcaffeinated high school drum line. “At first I suspected your sister made the deal, but there are records of her open casket funeral, nothing to indicate she came back wielding vengeance and hellfire and . . . whatever else that thing does.

“But that leaves one other Kale in the cemetery that night, and one with a reason to seek justice. And reason for consistent, connected appearances in that neighborhood, surrounding his favorite family.”

“Whatever you think you’re saying, just say it,” he croaks. No poker face at all. Something about it softens her heart to him. Under being a pain in the ass, he may just be a good soul.

“Obviously,” she retorts, “I’m saying you have a hell of a night job.”

She watches his Adam’s apple bob in perhaps 12 seconds of positively ominous silence. Tell me I’m right.

Please, tell me I’m right.

Ketch stands.

He covers the room in a few strides, again seeming too big for his size. Security outside her office window jump to attention. She puts a hand out to stay them—

As Ketch steps directly into her face. At this range she can see late 30’s lines in his skin, can see stubble trying to emerge well before 5pm. Can smell clean clothes, a fresh scent without having bothered with cologne. Can feel a weight in his gaze though all she sees in it is vibrant, gleaming surprise, and the rapid blinking of a man steeling himself.

“How’d I do?” she asks, forcing her voice to be firm. This is not the closest you’ve been to a rider. This is fine. This is fine. Just stay cool . . .  Breathe. Breathe . . .

You need him.

Frank needs him—

The tendons in his neck stand out. Security has a hand on her door handle. Not yet, not yet—

“Not bad,” he finally replies, swallowing his voice first into something steady, then something bold. “But you’re wrong on two counts. One, I never made any deal, no one in my family ever did. And two? Had a hell of a night job, thank you very much.”

Had.

And in that moment, pinned between this strange man and her desk, security reading the situation as IMMINENT DANGER, her boss outside surely biting his nails and going grayer by the second, Karen could just about kiss Daniel Ketch.

Chapter Text

Security yanks open the door much harder than necessary given that it's A) unlocked and B) Karen is on the verge of a smile, leaning so far forward into Ketch's face he's recoiled.

“Is there a problem in here?” snaps Donna, usually the sweeter and chattier of the two building guards. Ignacio, the shyer one, does his best at looking big without saying a word. As always, he's spectacularly on point with it.

“It's fine, Donna,” Karen assures her. Ignacio grunts. Donna rounds on Ketch anyway. The man is in decent shape, the morning jog sort, but despite standing some reasonable chance of taking these two, he clearly has no desire to do so. His palms raised as if they were pointing guns instead of voices, he's silent and relaxed until spoken to.

“You,” Donna hisses at Ketch, “I'm gonna need you to back off, yeah?”

He takes one long step backward.

“That good?” he asks—poor decision. Donna’s eyes narrow to slits.

“Nah, I don’t think so. Now I think you need to leave.”

Ketch deflates, palms coming down, eyes rolling heavenward. Ignacio takes one earthquake of a step through the door. His hands fly up again.

“Guys,” Karen pleads, but having invoked the wrath of Donna, there's not much hope for the man.

“He's got ten seconds to finish whatever he's here for. Then he's out,” Donna retorts.

Ketch throws Karen a look.

“I suppose this conversation could be finished over the phone.” She sighs.

“Works for me.” Ketch grunts, inching toward security. “Take me away, folks. I'll come quiet.”

Donna scowls. Ignacio's eyes smile. Karen waves as they chase Ketch out.

Fifteen minutes later she's locked in her office and on the phone with him.

“I think I owe you a coffee and a hundred thousand questions,” she tells him.

I might skip on the coffee, but I did promise you some answers—conditionally.”

“About that: I can't tell my boss no if he says ‘write on the rider.’”

No, but you could stand to treat it like, say, normal crime reporting. With boring headlines. Or we have no deal, and your fiery friend is on his own.”

“My what now?” she could almost laugh—the relief, the whirling high of he could get rid of this thing, he could be free, he could, had, had, h a d . . . Makes Ketch’s having pieced her together as she had him bemusing instead of frustrating. Besides, he can't prove anything. He doesn't know who Frank is from knowing Karen might know him. Frank, Frank who could be free—

You heard me. No way you've got a spirit,” Ketch snorts, “no way you’re an expert who didn’t have to deduce the hell out of this. But ‘spirit of vengeance?’ Not something laymen say. Besides, last I googled you, getting overinvolved is a specialty . . . I can put two and two together, too, thanks.”

Karen scowls into the phone.

“That's presumptuous.”

“Presumptuous? Coming from you? That's frickin hilarious.”

She could like this man. She could. Especially given his reasonable caginess. Not that she's suddenly biased (no, of course she is, he's gifted her hope) but she finds herself feeling quite forgiving just now.

“Fair enough.” She smiles. “But I won't say you're right.”

You don't have to: It leaves a kind of trace, you know. You remind me of my mom for a while there.”

Thanks?”

Ketch grunts, not a laugh, not unhappy.

Just means you can't hide proximity to these things.”

“Why does that not surprise me?” she groans. “Anyway. If you're telling me it's in the best interest of my . . . Friend, I think I have enough reason to take you seriously and back off a bit. Is that good enough for you, Mr. Ketch?”

There's a pause, then: “Dan.”

“Karen. Nice to meet you.”

You too, surprisingly.”

Karen snorts.

And they plan a meeting.

*

Karen bursts home so flustered Frank startles awake from his latest couch-nap. Sleeping, cooking, and funneling money recovered from who knows which probably-dead perps into her bank account as a form of “rent" she never asked for, but can’t afford to refuse, are his current diurnal activities. A simple something that it is. He may as well not exist for all she feels him beside her at night.

He jumps to his feet, watching her kick the door shut, shedding her bag and throwing herself across the room at him with so much momentum the embrace she lands in keeps her feet off the floor.

“There something I should know?” he grunts into her shoulder, arms wrapped around her to hold her where she’s landed. He slides his hands up under her thighs as he throws her legs around him, too.

“I was right about Ketch.”

“What?”

“Kale,” she pulls back to look him in the eye. “I know why you know his name. Frank.  He's the last rider frim New York. He's a former rider.”

“Ehhhhh,” Frank sneers, gently releasing her back to standing. “Bullshit. You don't take vacations from these things, not the real deal. He tell you that?”

No,” she retorts, “the research did. Give me some credit, here.”

“I give you all the credit there is. I'll still believe it when I see it.”

“In that case,” she crosses her arms and stares him down, “you can be my ride Friday. I hate parking in Brooklyn, and I'm not done with him yet. You may have sold your soul to a skin boiling rabid hellion, Frank, but I didn't, and if there is a way to—"

Karen.” His eyes, liquid dark, liquid tragedy, fix on hers with the same aching seriousness as his tone hooks into her heart. It's a shift so sharp it physically rips through some deep part of her, she’s certain. How else it could hurt so much defies reason.

“Don't,” he fumbles, looking at her, through her, “get caught up in a fairy tale here. I did this. I'll live with it. Don't waste time out of your life looking for a fix for it.”

And don’t you waste your life telling me you're beyond saving. He can't be. Surely, he can't be. There must be answers to sinner's prayers, somehow. Someway. Surely if there is a Hell there is a Heaven, and it would never allow its children to be so easily damned. Not forever. Not forever.

“Humor me,” she says, holding the rest in. Maybe she's afraid he'll dismiss it. Or affirm it. Or refuse to talk about it. The gut clutching cold fist of fear that sends bile inching up her esophagus to burn her heart says she's afraid, if she said anything out loud, that he'd certainly do something with it.

“If I drive you over there and have a look at this asshole, will you drop this? Like I said. It is what it is, Karen. Don't . . . Don't get sucked into it. Don't—" there's something he's not saying, too. She doesn't dare ask what. The fist of fear grabs at her lungs to prevent her. “Just leave it, ok? I promise you this guy has nothing useful.”

“He knows enough to warn me about other spirits coming after you.”

Frank's earnest expression darkens into something rueful and repulsive. For a moment, his face isn’t a face, just the shadow of one. A mask shaped like it, his eyes empty as sockets.

Manufactured assholes,” he hisses, “are all welcome to try.”

Manufactured?

But she doesn’t ask. Not him, nor that thing beneath his skin. She only whispers once more, “humor me,” and wraps her arms less ardently around his neck, lifting herself only a little this time so they're heart to heart and chest to chest.

He stays with her that night. Slides under the blankets with his inferno skin and holds her against his chest hot as the surface of the sun and blessedly so, with spring in New York inching away from the chill of rain, so close to the cusp of summer, but not having given up entirely, cool wet drifting chilly tendrils through the open window. Karen sinks into the heat at her back, tucking her head under Frank’s chin, clutching his hand in hers and pressing it to her heart. She wonders if he can feel it. The ache in every beat with his name on it . . . the heaviness in it of her own sins. Like him, she was born to punish—to skewer in words—not save. Not him. Not even herself.

She wonders if he can feel it.

I need to believe this has an end, she doesn’t tell him. I need to know there's more for you than sleeping like death and burning like hell. I need to know there's such a thing as hope.

Frank presses his lips into her hair. Breathes her scalp. Squeezes her hand.

Why don’t you want me to hope? What do you know that I don't? Is it a hopelessness for himself, for her and the way he breaks her heart? For her soul?

What does the spirit in you see in me?

Karen rolls over and plants a kiss in the hollow valley between his breastbone and collarbones before leaning her forehead into him.

I need to know if there's a difference between loving someone who's died and someone who's damned. She whispers it in her mind, her lips still against his flesh, like so many other things never to be said aloud. So many wonderings like exactly what degree of sin it is to love him. Maybe we can just be hellfire together. Page and Punisher: Spirits of Vengeance.

That almost, almost, makes her laugh. Instead, she wraps an arm around Frank's ribs and pulls them as close as is physically possible while both of them wear flesh. She falls asleep re-remembering in a brighter light the horrid concave space beneath his ribcage and what it felt like to sink inside the perimeter of his living body, that night in the Warehouse, and wondering what it would taste like to kiss him down to the bone.

*

Frank is waiting for her when she gets home on Friday. He's made spaghetti. Karen shovels it down between answers to questions about her day, he washes up while she changes into plain, not unprofessional but considerably simpler clothes and flats better suited for making a run for it. And clock ticks, ticks away in the background until he's tossing her a helmet and reminding her to wear a jacket. Until it's time to go meet one Dan Ketch.

He's waiting on the front porch of a particularly cramped little brownstone style townhome when Frank pulls Karen up to the curb.

While she’s wrestling off her helmet, he and Frank have two have a nice little stare-down, Frank in shadow beneath a hood and sunglasses, Dan bathed in sunset orange light but squinting more than a sun already sunk below the skyline warrants.

“Well?” she murmurs. Frank snorts.

“Yeah . . . I get it now. He's clean. Useless, but clean.”

“Encouraging. Thanks.”

She dismounts Frank's monstrous bike—a behemoth that starts with his presence instead of a key and thus left her suggestion of driving to be met with bemusement—and makes her way up to Dan. He's greets her without looking at her, eyes fixed on Frank, whose retort is to rev the bike and head off at a snails pace with it roaring, watching Dan over his shoulder as he goes. Oh, come on. Grow up

 . . . Both of you.

Dan makes some unidentifiable sarcastic noise so Brooklyn at heart it evades her; and flips Frank off as unsubtly as possible.

The answer is a laugh. The ugliest, coldest laugh superimposed over Frank's usual rumbling, hissing and crackling. It sends a shiver through Karen akin to what might result if icicle were conducted a vivisection of her spinal cord.

“Ugg,” Dan remarks, as Frank and the second voice in his laugh speed away.

Karen holds herself as if for warmth, and can say nothing until he looks at her with the raised brow of the concerned.

“I hate when they . . . Share. Like that. It's like he's disappearing under it.”

Dan shrugs.

“Is the guy usually an asshole?”

“He has his reasons to be, sometimes.”

“Then don't worry about it. It's just an echo bouncing off what's already there. Mostly for my benefit, too, bony-assed fucking . . .”

He grumbles his way to opening the door for her.

Karen steps into the narrow foyer. The house is a genuine antique under the outdoor facelift: worn, narrow, dark hardwood planks creek at her through a ragged, neutral rug, leading through one door to her right to a cramped kitchen, and through another to her left to a cozy living room with an enormous front window. The entire place is warm and utterly neutral, the only sign of individualism in it the row of family pictures along the wall ahead of her, shadowing the stairs.

She recognizes some of them: Dan and Barbara. Mrs. Ketch and Barbara. All of them together. A Mr. Ketch holding what must be a tiny baby Dan. A bright blonde woman Karen's age still sporting an updated version of the 90’s half shaved bowl cut, her arm slung over the shoulder of a strawberry blond man 7 inches taller and at least ten years older with his sunglasses still on for the camera, hiding from summer sun in a leather jacket. One single Polaroid with washed out colors further faded by time of a dark haired woman and sandy blond man, neither older than 20 and probably younger than that, posed together on motorcycles at the feet of a great brown highway sign reading “Welcome to COLORFUL Colorado.”

Dan sees her looking and clears his throat.

“That'd be the rest of the family. I'm guessing you already knew that, though.”

“A few of them. I'm assuming that's your older brother?”

“Yeah. With my cousin. And that,” he points up the wall to the faded Polaroid, “would be my birth parents, Barton and Naomi.”

“Naomi Kale?”

He grunts an affirmation.

“Yeah. The ghost rider crap comes from her side.”

He waves her after him into the kitchen, his head disappearing immediately into the fridge.

“Beer, water, or soda?”

“Definitely beer . . . I'm going to have to say, I didn't know riders could be genetic.”

Dan sighs as he reemerges from his overworked, dated fridge.

“They're really not. Long, long, weird story short, we had a crazed devil worshiping ancestor—I don't even know which devil—" he pops the caps off two beers with the heel of one hand. No glove today. Karen winces watching him, a sympathy pain, she tells herself, pointedly ignoring his commentary on the existence of devils.

“Anyway,” he continues, passing her a bottle, “asshole barters away his kid's soul. Hell elects kid as New Spirit of Vengeance. But he never agreed to it, so it becomes binding as a deal with the father instead: your lineage cursed with hosting the spirit of your demon skeleton kid, that's what you get for bartering with hell, hah hah.”

Karen offers him a blank stare and a long pull from her beer, which Dan joins her in, leaning back against his kitchen counter.

“Yeah, that's about the face I made.”

Karen shakes her head, shoves some hair out of her face, drinks again. And again. It takes some wind up to say what must be said next.

“So, if that's the case, you got rid of your spirit what, because something went sideways in the . . . Ancestral contract?”

“Ehhh, more or less. It seemed more complicated than that at the time but, yeah. It had a lot to do with giving No—the spirit his own free will back. Convoluted, not typical. Judging by the look on your face, not much help to your friend out there, either.”

Karen sighs and flops against the counter alongside him.

“No indeed. He made his own deal.”

“I mean, that's how it's supposed to work. How much do you know about the spirits, anyway? How they're made, that crap?”

A bitter laugh escapes her before she can stifle it.

“I know someone I care about died. I know he took a deal on his way out. Now sometimes his skin melts off and he punishes the wicked with hellfire and God knows what else. A chain, apparently,” that gets a fond chuckle out of Dan, followed by a wince as if the memory physically stings him, “and I know afterward he looks like he's been road-hauled by a comet.”

Oh yeah, I remember that. Tired all the time?”

“Sleeping is all he does.”

Dan nods. His gaze cast distantly across the kitchen, he adds “it takes everything out of you. No matter how little you get involved, how brief it is, it brings its own fire but you're still the fuel. And if you want to keep in chained up, eventually it gets stir crazy . . .  not ideal, since they're already a pain in the ass when they're happy.”

“They have emotions?”

“Well, yeah.  Kind of. A little. They're built off a human soul, usually, so.”

Karen throws her hands up, one threatening to slosh her beer, in what is either exasperation or an invocation to the gods of making-life-make-any-sense. Dan's mouth flicks up at the corner into a tired, sympathetic smile.

“Let me back up,” he says. “And you know, you can sit down.”

“After you.” She sounds monotone to her own ears.

Dan waves her into the living room. He takes a seat below the window. She takes the sofa opposite an old wood fireplace and a wall mounted flat screen which may be the nicest thing he owns. A pile of binders, manila folders, and stray documents consumes the coffee table, so she continues holding her beer. Dan sighs at the mess.

“Case files,” he says. “Sorry.”

Karen waves off the apology.

“You’ve seen my desk.”

“Yeah . . . I wasn’t going to say anything.”

She doesn’t quite laugh. But she thinks about it.

Falling back on the couch, watching the window's reflection in the tv, she says:

“So, what were you saying about human souls?”

“Right, right. Ok, so, spirits are almost always built off them. They plead or make deals for revenge and wake up on fire and on a rampage, which lasts however long they signed on for, or something like that.”

“So there are limits.”

Dan shrugs. “I think? My rider didn’t, but the hell did he know? And the only other one I know is another freak accident ghostie, so, not a perfect sample.”

Ghostie. Oh my god. Like what you’d call a dog.

“How so?”

“Something about a soul-eating eldritch demon?”

“Oh, for fuck sake.”

That cracks Dan right up.

“Yeah,” he chuckles, “congratulations, you know the most normal rider in New York history. Lucky you.”

“including carnival guy?” She asks. Dan's laughter dies instantly.

“Shit, you do know your stuff, don’t you?”

“loosely. I’ve heard some stories about the original ghost rider of America's highways, yeah.” I even drove to Nebraska to find them is not something she admits out loud. “He shows up in an police report from the 70s.”

“Huh. Well, here's hoping he notices less about you than you him, seeing as that’s the demon one.” He raises his bottle aloft for her in a toast before slamming the rest.

Karen scoots to the far end of the couch and leans in his direction, set to be glaring at him when he emerges from the booze. He isn’t startled by the proximity, but he does throw her a look of concern, probably for her sanity.

“Let me take a wild guess,” she says. “He's the spirit you’re worried about my friend throwing down with.”

“. . .  Yep.”

“Why?  I mean, why warn me? What's it to you if he did beat the tar out of my rider?”

His eyebrows shoot up his forehead. Your rider? She can’t afford to question the turn of phrase. It shares the bones of the man who shares her bed. It’s the reason Frank is alive. That makes it her problem. Her story. Her rider.

Dan shakes his head and runs a hand through his hair, prompting it to stick up in all directions and exposing for a moment an intricate mosaic of delicate scars on his right palm. The family brand, perhaps. It isn’t dissimilar to the age blurred design on his mother's bike in her photo.

“Honestly? It's no skin off my back at. All. If OG Ghostie obliterates your friend. I don’t love having a rider back in the neighborhood, its like, I don’t know, rain and arthritis. And your friend there has a hell of an energy, to put it nicely, and he clearly doesn't give a shit what he does with it. That’s the problem:

“Nothing personal, but I don’t trust him not to knock over half the city trying to plow through—what’d you call him? Carnie guy.”

Karen shakes her head.

“He's not like that. He doesn’t hurt innocents.”

Dan releases a loud, butter guffaw.

“One: pretty sure everyone everywhere has someone who’d wanna see them get comeuppance for something. There are no innocents, in spirit world. Two: I realize my ghostie's zero kill policy wasn’t any more normal than anything else about him, but the kill count your friend has is just excessive. Doesn’t matter who he thinks he’s sparing, it can’t just . . . keep going like this.”

Now Karen laughs. It’s not a nice laugh.

“According to what playbook?” she demands. “Your friend? Carnie guy? Have you seen what he used to get up to? The actual headlines?” Dan tries to wave her off. She jolts to her feet and hands him her beer by shoving it into his face.

“Let me get my bag and show you something.”

Dan takes her beer with an absolutely unsubtle you're one crazy lady scrawled into his expression, but, more evidence in favor of being a good soul, he keeps his mouth shut.

Karen retrieves her bag from the foyer and withdraws a full to bursting folder marked Quentin. Dan double blinks when he sees it.

“Here,” she says, “trade you for the beer. Just glance through this, would you?”

He hands her beer back and takes the folder, eyeing her like its some kind of trap. He opens it with one finger as waiting for it to bite.

She’s left it chronological, so the first story is local. He breezes over the headline. But the next page has no headline: it’s the beginning of the Gardenville police reports. He scans the first one wordlessly. The second he lingers on with an expression that says he's sucking on a lemon, though there’s nothing in his mouth. The next few leave him still. He flips ahead a bit, and lands at last on one that turns his expression pitch dark. He swallows visibly and offers the folder back.

“Soul barbecue,” she remarks, measuring the way he cringes for how well he followed this little reading assignment. It seems he got the point. “Tell me again why this guy has any room to talk about how much is too much or how far is too far.”

Dan shakes his head.

“That guy,” he sighs, “is that demon, remember? Souls are more dinner to it than a thing to be weighed. It took a lot of years and self control to reign that thing in. That being the case . . . Let's just say the guy driving has a stick up his ass about people using these things as loose canons. He's been there, done that, and lost a lot because of it. Arguably everything.”

“So did my friend.”

Dan shrugs helplessly.

“All I know is that playing judge, jury, and executioner on the scale your friend does is going to read like an invitation to put down a rabid dog if he can’t get it together.”

Karen scoffs. “If he could.”

“Oh, he absolutely could.”

That last warning is not so gentle and sympathetic. It flashes in his eyes.

“How.”

“Raw power, a go at a rider's one weak spot, you name it.”

“Weak spot?”

Dan relaxes back in his chair with a quirked brow that asks better of her.

“Human soul isn’t an impervious foundation, you know,” he says, still with that catch up lady look on his face. “Kind of the opposite. And the human body?”

“Like breaking glass,” she mutters. ”But can a spirit kill another spirit? Does it actually . . . matter?”

“It could at least rip out of its nice symbiotic comfort zone. I don’t know if spirits can actually die or just get recycled or go off and find a new host or what the rules are . . . The closest I ever got to seeing that . . . I didn’t see much but void. Pretty sure Ghostie got a return to sender postmarked for hell. But the next thing I knew, I had my body back, and I still don’t have a goddamn clue about what happened to him, so.”

There has to be more to that though. There has to be.

“So if the spirit was just torn from the host . . . ?” Karen blurts.

Dan's eyes flash wariness in the fading light drifting through the window.

“Then congrats, I guess, you end up like me. 46 looking 34, a recluse by necessity, still can’t sleep at night, get phantom pains in your frickin bones, but alive.

Maybe. Like I said, I never made a deal. I didn’t have to die to inherit this crap. So I got out ok, yeah. But, Karen, I have no idea what happens to someone who made their deal in their way out.”

“None at all?”

“Nothing. But, if I had to guess? I wouldn’t bet on a comfortable retirement in the garden of Eden. I’d imagine something more like that story you just showed me, at best: the host survives without a soul if at all. At least in a case where the soul fueling your spirit is your own.”

Karen can’t imagine her own face. But the look in it softens his even further.

“Not the answer you were hoping for, huh?”

“Hard to say. I think I’m still looking for any answer at all . . . but . . . It’s just . . . He deserves better than this.”

That I'd believe.”

Silence.

Dan clears his throat.  “Another beer?”

“Read my mind.”

Dan disappears into the kitchen while Karen places her head in her hands.

*

“If I could leave you with any advice,” Dan says through gritted teeth, clutching his scarred right palm in his left hand as the growling of Frank's bike grows closer, “It's still this: don’t advertise. Your friend,” his eyes go momentarily sad in a way that makes her want to break his nose, “would do better to lighten up, or at least be subtle. Truth is I don’t want to know what happens to the host of a dead spirit either. I’ve got friends, too.”

“I gathered that,” she says softly.

“I figured. But . . . One other thing?”

She turns to him slowly as he opens the door for her.

“If there ever comes a point where he,” he gestures with his head to Frank, waiting at the edge of the sidewalk, engine running, “isn’t in control . . .  Don’t trust the spirit to honor his rules. How much you love him and he loves you,” coming from a stranger the phrase feels like being stabbed with a hot wire, “doesn’t mean shit to the spirit. It knows one thing. One. And whatever feelings of its own it might have are buried way too far under that one thing to matter. If Elvis leaves the building, don’t look for him. Just run. K?”

Karen can only nod. Dan claps her once, gently, on the shoulder.

“That asshole,” meaning Frank, “is going to stare down his nonexistent bony nose at the likes of me and my weirdo spirit, and I don’t need that. But if you ever want,” he digs in his jeans pocket for a slip of paper, “to scream it out at somebody who's been there, that's my actual phone number. Feel free to use it.”

Karen takes the number. Shakes his hand. Thanks him quietly. And she drifts back to frank in the late evening dark.

He doesn’t say anything until they’re home.

“Find what you were looking for?”

“Not exactly.”

Frank nods. He does not say I told you so.

“It is what it is,” he says gently instead. Karen turns and buries her face in his chest.

“Be careful out there, Frank.”

Frank sighs, a rumble she can feel in her cheek, and holds her close.

“I’m not worried about other riders, Karen.”

“Yeah? Well, maybe I am. For me, frank. Play it cool. Hold off as long as you can. Don’t . . .”

“Make a scene?”

“Not as the rider.”

She can’t look him in the eye as he processes that.

“If that’s what you want.”

Karen can’t say yes. She cannot speak words aloud that would beg back the Punisher. She will not ask him to become that piece of himself—as if he ever really stopped—in her name. Her own words ring like condemnations in her head: don’t do this and say that it’s for me.

“What I want,” she says instead, “is not to lose you again.”

“You won't.” he presses kisses into her hair. “I promise, you wont.”

Chapter Text

“Karen?”

“Hey! Foggy. Can we get drinks?” She sounds manic. She knows she does.

“Uhhh . . . Now?"

“Pretty much, yeah. The usual in 20?” Not manic . . . desperate.

Silence over the phone takes the shape of Foggy's worried face.

“Ok . . . Is everyone alive?”

“What? Yeah. No, yeah. Ah—look everything is fine I just. Really. Need. A drink. And I don’t want to do it at home alone.”

His concerned face doesn’t leave his tone.

“You know, I think I can make that happen if you make it 30 . . . maybe 45.”

A feminine laugh in the background, poorly stifled and very close, turns her mental image of Foggy's worried face into his most mortified blushing face.

“Good. Fine. Sure. Take your time . . . and thanks. I just . . . I need this. Really badly.”

“I got your back, Karen. Just don’t get started without me.”

A bottle already in her shaking hand, Karen hangs up the phone.

*

Foggy takes one look at her staring into a half-finished beer like a crystal ball and sighs. Dropping into the chair opposite her, he says “that bad, huh?”

Karen blinks a delayed response, jolting and nearly upending her beer as if she didn’t know he had arrived. Somewhere in her mind she did, of course, but it’s a part of her that doesn’t feel real. Or it is real, and its her who's lost touch. It’s hard to say.

“Fog—ugg, yeah. Sorry. I . . . Oh god, I did something at work. I can’t believe it but I did and I’m . . . Holy shit, I . . .” Like ripping off a band aid, she just spews words at him.

Foggy reaches across the table to grab her hand and squeeze.

“Karen. Slow down. Start from the top.”

Karen takes a deep breath. A long drink. Another breath. Foggy takes her empty bottle away.

“Ok,” she says, choking back guilt and fear and sickness, “ok. It started . . . I got a warning about the ghost rider stories.  They said it could attract the wrong kind of enhanced, superbullshit attention.”

“And?”

“And I started digging, obviously. And for once, it was legitimate. Foggy, it was genuine. It was serious.  It made sense and I—I told Ellison I thought we should back off the story. “

“Wait. Wait wait wait,” his astonishment turns her stomach, “you, Karen Page, backed off of something because someone told you to.”

“Because I didn’t want to be responsible for provoking a, a fiery ghost fight in Manhattan's back yard!” his face says oh God I was kidding but too late, “I told him . . . Why highlight it. I’ve seen it, it isn’t human, this is . . . Is federal government X-Files shit, Foggy it’s—"

“Karen.” He cuts her off as firmly as he’s capable of. Squeezes the hand she's been unconsciously pulling away. “There’s a new superperson every day almost. You can’t report on all of them. Dropping a story where the guy already has a rhythm, an MO, based on good advice . . . I’m not shocked because I’m disappointed, I’m shocked because this might be the most sensible thing you’ve ever done in your entire career.”

She laughs, more because of the alcohol than anything, more because it's a good alternative to crying.

“Yeah, maybe. But that’s not really the worst of it. That’s actually nothing.”

Ok, so, what’s somethings?

“I—" she can’t look him in the eye and say it. “I . . . We got in first. On a story about an explosion in a warehouse, part of what turned out to be a major illegal arms outfit. It was nearly gone, no records, nothing left. Bodies burnt down until dental impressions are useless. And Foggy, I know who it was. A trained monkey would know. But . . . I . . . When I covered it . . . I played dumb. Not one. Word. About the rider I—I put it through as some big mystery . . . Foggy. I falsified a story. I know I did. I know I did.”

When she’s able to look at him, he looks . . . Underwhelmed.

“Ok. When you say falsified . . . Do you mean you changed hard facts?”

“No. But—"

“Did you report evidence exactly as it was?”

“Foggy—"

“Did you do anything but omit an unproven theory?”

“Omission is a lie. And I know . . .”

And here comes Foggy the white night to save her. Bless his entire soul. His expression firms, as does his grip, and he lovingly lays into her with uncompromising sternness.

“No, Karen. Look. You’re not going to win a Pulitzer for this one. But you’ve done your job. Exactly your job. Knock it out of the field on your next big story, but this? Karen, honestly . . . This is just life in New York. Does it actually matter who did it at this point? Especially if it was a mostly-kind-of-goodish guy who's probably like, I dunno, a crazy angel of hell or something? I don’t know that it is. And I know that’s not a noble statement but . . . You have to live for yourself sometimes. There’s nothing wrong with letting the little stuff slide.”

It’s a good talk. She should listen. But all she hears is “let it slide,” and can’t stop the thought: Until it all adds up.

 And up.

And up.

And up—

She doesn’t know she's crying until Foggy starts panicking, because it's not delicate crying. It isn’t stress tears. Lord knows she's prone to those—her eyes stand ready to water over most emotions—but this isn't anything like that. She's a little too drunk to register anything but his expression turning to cringing horror and immediate mom-mode, the world off kilter at the edges of her vision. But she's sobbing. So loudly the bar tender comes over and says something. She can’t hear what. She can only hear herself, deep shaking cries like the scared infant she is just now.

How much is too much? How do little sins add up? has she been too far gone for years now? Since Wesley? Since—

And now she's in such hysterics Foggy is bodily removing her, dragging her on stumbling feet and liquid knees, out the door.

How can I fix anything if I'm damned myself? That’s the thought she needs to articulate. What comes out is a toddler crying for mama. Only she's not asking for her mother.

“Church?” Foggy tries to clarify through her blubbering, “what Church? Since when--!”

“MATT. CHURCH,” she sob-shouts. Foggy tries to say no, to urge her home . . . Her legs buckle and he's holding her slack in his arms while she heaves and whimpers and people are probably staring and—

“Ok! Ok. Matt's church. Ok. Got it. Gimme your keys.  Karen? I gotta—"

She mashes her purse against his chest.

He somehow, one handed, rustles up keys, and drags her to the car. He has to stuff her into the passenger seat like a rag doll. As if all her bones have turned to jelly. He struggles to buckle her as she curls into a fetal position right there in the upright seat as best she can.

Maybe he should take her home.

If she knew Frank wouldn’t be there, maybe she'd let him.

But Frank can't see this. Frank told her to let it go To let him burn to let him suffer to just stand by—Frank will blame himself. But it's not your fault if I'm not enough to save you—

Can you sell a damaged-goods soul? Can you trade an average person with deep running sins for an incredible person with justified sins? Warranted choices? How could the impure ever break a devil's contract?

Would frank even let me?

“Church,” she blubbers again as Foggy climbs behind the wheel. Do not take me home like this.

“Yep, church. You bet. Just uh . . . Deep breaths, ok? You're kind of freaking me out here. Deep breathes. Whatever it is, it'll be fine--" she sobs as if it were a scream" or, or not fine! It'll be what . . . It is? It'll--"

She sits bolt upright, hiccupping and shaking.

“Is what it is,” she snarls through tears, the words broken by heaving breathes and the wet voice of tears, in and out like a bad signal. There has to be more than what is.

There has to.

She's down to sniffling by the time she pushes through the heavy old doors of the church. Foggy waits uneasily by the car.

She doesn't remember the right steps for entering. Holy water, candle—she hovers over each, hiccupping, finally stuffing a twenty into the alms collection box bolted to the wall like old fashioned phones. Sorry. I’m sorry. I don’t know if that’s right . . .

A voice, gentle and gravelly, like an old country road worn down more to sand than stone, assures her:

“That is . . . Remarkably generous.”

She whirls around—it’s the priest. Matt's priest from Grotto's funeral. So long ago, when the world made more sense, Hell was a boogeyman tale, and frank castle was just a criminal in need of a trial. She's tempted to hug him.

“Hi,” she hiccups, “I . . . I’m not catholic, so I wasn’t sure what else . . . Sorry, if . . . I mean, sorry, hi, I'm Karen, I’m--"

“I remember you,” he assures her. “Why don’t you come sit down?”

Sniffling and nodding, she lets him lead her to a pew lit mostly by alter candles and a dull minimalist overhead light mounted well above them on the wall. The priest pats the seat next to him. Karen slides into the pew and wipes her eyes.

“Something ails your heart,” I see,” he says. “Did you come here to talk about it, or to be talked to?”

“I don’t know. I . . . I have a . . . I need . . . How many sins does it take to damn a soul?” she blurts the last part without warning and watches his face move from serenity to concern to calm.

“No cutting corners, I see. I'll try to be as frank with you as I can, Ms. Page: there is no set number. All human beings engage in sin, but a loving god, terrible but loving, I’d ask, would have what desire to see every soul damned? No one is beyond redemption.”

No one? How can you be sure?”

He smiles a little. “I can’t. That’s why its called faith. But I’ve spent too many years with my nose in biblical texts to say there is no redemption for a human being. You don’t strike me as someone who wants to be told Christ already sacrificed for your sins. But that’s one way to think of it.”

Karen bites her nails.

“Is that how that works? Sacrifice in exchange for souls? That’s the world? Because that sounds to me like hell. And isn’t. Isn’t the entire point to end up anywhere but there?”

The priest purses his lips.

“I would say the point is to be closer to God, rather than further from hell.”

“But what if you’re already damned? Can you come back from it? How far is hell from heaven—is there any escaping that?”

He looks at her with sorry eyes and scrutiny.

“You do not strike me as forever damned, Ms. Page. You care for others far too much for that. Not knowing who it is you really worry for, I can only say redemption exists. No one on this earth is past hope.”

“But, but if they were . . . Would you know? How would you know?”

She’s leaning into his space, feels small. Like a dog at its master's feet with tail firmly between legs, waiting to be beaten or forgiven or both, longing for anything but the non-answer of being ignored. His age spotted face crinkles in many a place, as if rippling away from her apparent insanity. If you only knew. How real—

“There are faiths which believe your fate is predetermined. The Calvinists, who first came to this country long before it was a country, for example, believed circumstance could be an indicator of your predestined place in heaven or otherwise. In Hinduism, karma dictates the ease of your life. Catholicism, however, has no such contingency. You earn your place in heaven. If you'd somehow lost all chance, you'd have to be a soul so dark, I can’t imagine what it would look like.”

“So you don’t know.”

“The exact weight of a person’s sins? No. But their good works always count for something. I absolutely believe that.  I think much of the world likes to believe that, if not all, in their own way. You control your own fate. Now, if you wish to confess to something and be offered a guideline toward repentance . . .”

Karen shakes her head.

“No. No I don’t think . . . Is it penance if you’re already reaping the consequences?”

“It may very well be.”

Damn it, frank. God, damn it.

She presses him a little while longer, finding no guarantees. No assurances of the weight of small sins, great sins, if there is cosmic forgiveness for cowardice or indifference or murder. For loving the damned. She thanks him when she leaves, no longer crying, with eyes still red.

Where do I stand?

He cannot tell her. Perhaps no living thing can.

No

Living

Thing.

*

“I want to go for a walk.”

Karen greets Frank from the couch, shoes already on, when he creeps in at 3:00 am. Not his latest night. Late enough.

He knows immediately, of course, that something is wrong. Whether from her hollow-eyed stare—having showered away tear stains and running mascara but not their cause—or the simple fact of her being awake and waiting, he doesn’t question except to ask if she's ok. Of course she isn’t. But she knows what he means.

“Fine. I just need to get out and talk.”

He lets her lead the way.

It's a cool night, and he drops his jacket across her shoulders without asking if she wants it. She cant feel the cold. But she can feel the warmth of it—it almost makes it all worse.

There's an empty square lot three blocks down that’s been turned into a community garden fenced in by trees and a low gate. While vandals and artists—the line between which is unclear—have their way with the exposed brick sides of the buildings to three sides of the garden, people are mostly mindful of it. A heavier gate and a strict chain aren’t the message its keepers choose to send overnight. So while the posted hours say 6:00 am to 11:00 pm, strolling in at 3:30 is no hear obstacle.  Just a tiny, tiny sin against societal rules. One more tiny, tiny sin.

They walk a lap around the garden before frank stops her.

“Talk to me, Karen,” je says, stepping in front of her. She can’t quite look him in the eye.

“I want your help with something I know you’re not going to want to give it for.”

“Better just spit it out, then. No use holding it in.”

She nods. She speaks to the starless city sky over his shoulder.

“I . . . Want to see my sins.” And now she can look at him. “Hell. Devils. Souls. I’m thinking about all of that now and I just keep coming back to . . . What it means to be damned. How you end up that way. Is my soul clean enough to be worth anything—"

It's dark but she can see him blanch all the same. There’s a glow in his shadowed eyes that didn’t used to be there. Embers somewhere deep in the sockets.

“Worth?  Worth what? It's not a commodity, Karen, don’t tell me you're thinking of using it as one. Nothing is worth that, got it? Nothing.”

It may be the harshest he’s ever spoken to her. She can hear what he doesn’t say un the tone: bone deep terror. I’m not worth it.

So I’m that predictable.

“I never said I planned to do anything with it.”

“No, Karen. Nah, you got that look on your face, whatever your thinking, stop it. Cut it out. Cut that shit out and bury it, yeah? Promise me.”

No.

“It’s a moot point anyway if I’m already fucked,” she retorts. Frank turns away from her. He makes a little half circle toward the gate and then back, weaving like rabid animal, pacing in place.

“You have no idea what you’re talking about. Karen. Come on. You're the best person I know, ok? This is the last kind of shit you should be thinking about.”

“How can you know that?” her calm breaks like shattering glass, jagged and pitchy, half shouted. She leans up into his face. “How can you know that?”

“I can get a pretty good impression of people these--"

“An impression doesn’t help me, frank. Ifs an assumption. I don’t want to live with more assumptions, and, and wonderings and just . . . Knowing there’s this whole eternal bitch of a world waiting as if this one wasn't bad enough already, and if that’s how this all ends for us--"

Not. You.”

“You. Don’t. Know. That.”

“Then why are you asking me?”

She leans back. Waits for him. Catches and holds the gleam in his eye.

“I'm not.”

It takes him a beat. The embers spark and then are squelched. He reels away by several steps.

“No. Absolutely, fucking—"

“Why not? Why not? Give me one good reason why that . . . Thing can’t give me a good hard look and show me where I stand, Frank.”

“Cause it's torture, Karen! It's not a slideshow, its not a greatest hits reel, it's a punishment. It hurts you in your soul, Karen. Don’t you dare ask me to do that. Don’t you--"

He stumbles back as she steps toward him as if his legs were failing him.

“I’m not asking you, I’m asking it. So what if it hurts? If it does its because I deserve it--"

He catches her shoulder. Whether to shake sense into her or to steady himself she can’t tell. But his grip is tight and desperate.

No one deserves it. They earn it. They put their necks and their bullshit out where it can see them and they get what's coming. No way are you setting yourself up for that. And no way are you asking me to put you in sights, I am not—I will not stick you in a scope, Karen. I will not cram you into its crosshairs on purpose. Don’t you dare ask me that. Don’t you dare. Karen, please--"

One more sin. She can see memory like a newsreel in the wildness of his eyes, all the enormity of his survivor's guilt, his sinner's quilt, his rage and love and the loneliness that even she will never be able to touch.  The cold dark wound like a hollow chamber in his heart locked away from feeling. The prison where he keeps himself. And she's shaken the cage.

“Jesus,” she mutters. “Jesus, I'm . . .”

“Don’t say sorry. Don’t.”

Karen puts her hands on his face, trying so hard not to cry again. Failing. She blinks it back.

“This is on me,” he rasps. “this shit . . . It pulls everyone in. If I were better id get the hell--"

“Stop.”

“You don’t deserve this. You shouldn’t be thinking about this shit. Karen—I’ve seen sin. I’ve seen it like you can’t . . . Its not you. Damnation? The likes of me? Its not you.”

“It shouldn’t have been you, either.”

He looks down and away. She has to pull his face back to hers to kiss him. Slow and firm. It's that or start sobbing again, and maybe never stop.

Chapter Text

Interlude

FRANK

At the end of the day, for all his eye rolling, Ketch is fine. Dumb kid in a weird situation, could have fucked it worse than he did. Knows more than most. Has one of those exasperated, shining souls that makes him hard to look at like over-polished chrome out to blind everything else on the highway. But he's trying to watch out for Karen. So he can be too-clean and obnoxious and out of his league all he wants. Still a mockery. Still laughable. But not in a way that matters.

He's already on the front steps when Frank pulls up, a tepid glare on his face.

“The hell do you want?”

Frank kills the engine.

“One stupid question. I already know the answer.”

“Then why do you need it from me?”

They call back and forth up and down the stairs in the pre-dawn light. Neither approaches the other.

Maybe I need to be able to say I tried.”

Ketch crosses his arms over his chest and sighs. He keeps one fist white knuckle clenched.

“Do me a favor then and get it over with.”

Frank tries to meet his eyes. There's an echo in them, something scorched into him forever. Reads like a vacancy sign.

“There's no way out of this, yeah?” Frank declares. “You tell me if I’m wrong.”

Daniel ketch says nothing at all.

Chapter Text

Frank has been out, MIA, for three nights. Karen is settled at the kitchen table with the kinds of books she reads, now, when he’s not home, digging for answers that won’t come with a bottle of wine open beside her from some crack new-age tomb about demonology (it’s not what you think!) when something screams.

A howling shriek that penetrates window and wall as if it should break them, over-her-shoulder-near, furious and agonized, something revolting writhing in the sound, a thousand voices keening in one, screaming, in agony, with one beneath them wrapped in an Earth-old fury that invokes a purely instinctual adrenal response so severe that Karen topples her chair and upends her glass of water—and glass of wine—onto her library book as she jolts the table. One second she's sitting and the next she has her back to a wall and her gun drawn from her purse and courtesy of the wine, her book is bleeding.

The sound carries across the whole of Manhattan for a half a minute before it cuts off abrupt as beheading on a guillotine. Cuts out. Leaving a second of silence like the grave, like the inside of a casket, in its wake. In the loudest, busiest, most sleepless city in the world. Not. One. Sound. Just palpable silence. Ears stuffed full of lead and cotton.

She screams when her phone rings, and almost shoots it.

She's still armed when she scrambles for it, saving the book too late from its watery grave in the process. Having served as the island to save the phone, she'll be getting the library a new copy somehow. Just in its honor.

“Hello?” she gasps.

“Where's'he?”

“Wha--"

“YOUR RIDER, where's he? Is’e with you?”

Ketch sounds concussed.

“What? No. Why? Dan—"

Fuck. Toldya. Fuck. Gotta get . . . Long Island, you . . .”

Will meet you halfway, get a cab, no way you can drive like this. What the hell is wrong?”

He slurs something unintelligible beyond “brother,” “idiot,” “gotta get there before.” Before someone dies? Before the cops get there? The fuck is this, Ketch?

But she can’t ask. He spits a cross street in Queens and hangs up before she can. Hopefully, he will indeed take a cab.

*

Dan skids into view on a wobbly motorbike he lays down as he tries to stop. Slides ten feet with his leg pinned under the bike, no chaps. No helmet. No nothing. Just flannel pajama pants and a T-shirt. Karen is out of the car before he even comes to a stop.

“Dan, what the fuck!?”

He kicks the bike off, wincing.

“S'fine. I’m fine. You drive the rest, but I’m fine.”

Karen does her best to yank the bike upright as he stumbles to standing. An aggressive patch of road rash winks at her from beneath wrinkled pants.

“Fuck,” she says, “get in the car. There’s a first aid kit in the back seat—"

“Gotta park the bike.”

“Oh, Jesus Christ!”

Karen charges back into the driver’s seat while he arranges his bike at an appropriate parking angle. While she waits, for the 37th time, she calls Frank. For the 37th time, he doesn’t answer.

When Dan gets in the car she slams the gas before he can so much as get his seatbelt on, charging toward Long Island and its suburban woodlands at speeds that would have her arrested if she could be caught. The drive should take nearly an hour.

It doesn’t.

No, the entire route from her apartment to their destination takes an hour. Of driving through a dead city. Like someone has hit pause on life, like it's still recovering from the quiet. Like an echo of New York instead of the real thing. An eerie, quiet, gently paced echo rolling through the night like a slow brook. The lack of activity is so much more terrifying than any flood of sirens.

Dan points the way. He doesn’t know street names, calls turns at the last second, sends her finally barreling off road into a thicket of trees that bars their progress after more than a few yards. He’s out before she can even stop the engine, tripping and sliding his way through trees. Karen pounds after him, the car abandoned behind, doors wide open, keys still in the ignition.

They tumble, bleeding from brambles and sharp low branches, her sleeping shorts far from adequate apparel, into a clearing. An artificial one, every tree, even the soil, burnt down to black ash. And in the middle of it: a man. Sprawled unconscious or dead on his back, framed by broken branches and fallen trees.

This is not where the fight—and there was a fight, this man is not Frank—started. Just where it ended.

Karen sprints past Dan, who kneels immediately at the side of the unconscious man, near unidentifiable in a dark lit only by tree broken shards of moonlight, picking her way along the path of broken trees. She trips through them. Falls and scrambles, bleeds from her palms and knees. And at the end, there is an empty road. With an unfamiliar chopper laid out on its side in the middle of it like carrion.

In every direction, there is only empty asphalt, and pitch pine trees. No trace, no skid, no other bike, indicates any directionality. Any heading. Any lead. Any indication—

Of Frank.

No. No no no—

She’s on her bloody knees in the middle of the road first whispering his name, then shrieking it before she's even conscious of having moved. No, damn it, no, not again damn it no—

Dan stumbles after her with a cacophony of broken trees. Arrives beside her, he tries to stifle the screams. He's saying something, but she can no longer seem to hear.

*

Interlude

THE FIRSTBORN

Some woman screaming calls Dan off in a stumbling hurry.  This was no good for him. He shouldn’t be the one playing janitor. Too late now.

And something has got to be done about the lady anyway. If he's been out as long as he thinks he has, so far he's been lucky not to have been found, and the kid has the right idea to quiet the girl up. Demons don’t draw in cops.  Screaming chicks? Different story.

Danny coaxes a blonde covered in scrapes and bruises and blood on her palms back to where he sits, however much later. Time isn’t exactly working just now.

“Found your bike,” he says.

“Yippee. And who the hell is this?”

His head is pounding. He can’t see the lady straight. She's a blur of bright hair in the moon, blood smell, and a flash of wild, tear-shined eyes, that’s it. But he can tell she's distraught.  Its coming off her like a low-lying haze determined to suffocate everyone else.

Dan doesn’t introduce her. She does that herself. She stumbles forward, falls to a knee to get in his face—rendering her no less dizzying—and demands:

“Tell me he's alive.”

His head on fire—not in the usual way—a screaming demon licking wounds and writhing in some corner of his soul, aching in every fucking bone—all he's got to say to her is:

“You're kidding, right?”

And then the witch clocks him.

THE OTHER

Karen smacks John so hard his teeth clack together, and Dan has to jump on her a little to pull her back. John swearing up a storm, none of it at Karen so much as around her, can’t drown her out:

“Tell me! Tell me, did you kill him!? Damn you, tell me!”

And he’d thought her screaming after “Frank" was bad—this is just murderous. Smothering her seems all wrong, but someone is going to come out here thinking she's murdering John if it goes on. There's no other option but to drown her out and hope for an answer that will silence her.

“John!” his idiot brother is focused—reasonably, maybe—on the strange screaming lady trying to claw her way free of Dan to presumably take his face off. “JOHN. ANSWER HER ALREADY.”

John spits blood just shy of where she kneels, restrained, and spits one word with it:

“Yeah!” He snaps. Karen goes grave-silent. “Yeah, Ghost Punisher AlphaOmega Vengeance Asshole is alive. Would you calm down, already?!”

He doesn’t get to clarify what John means by Ghost Punisher—though in hindsight, Dan probably should have known already—because Karen goes limp in his grip, forehead to the ground. It's a weird thing to thank God for, a ghost rider, especially one wearing the sort of person as Frank Castle as a skin, but that seems to be what she’s doing.

*

The other man, a strawberry blonde leaning more toward berry, frozen at the same upper-40s-something as he'd been in his picture over Dan's stairs, spends the car ride home sprawled in the back seat, one arm slung over it to grip his bike's handlebar, the other in his lap steadying the chain looped around the behemoth cycle's body to keep it precariously hanging from her open hatchback. Dan drives. His bike stays parked somewhere in Queens. He carts Karen, in her own car, back to his place in Brooklyn without stopping. Without talking. One word is spoken over the next hour, the name “John" framed as a question met with a singular grunt from the back seat.

He only ever looks at Karen, never speaks.

Karen doesn’t look back.

She says nothing as they pull up in front of Dan's place and drag the bike out of the back, John fussing with it but too stumbling to contribute much. Like a concussed drunkard. She doesn’t see where the chain goes. She doesn’t see anything.

Dan is the one who comes around and opens the door.

“You’re not giving me a lot of confidence about letting you drive yourself home, so why don’t you come in?” he asks gently.

“Why?” she asks the dashboard, eyes stuck straight ahead.

“Cause I gotta patch up this asshole anyway,” in her peripheral she can see him jerk his head toward something, someone, “so we might as well get your hands there.”

Her palms are caked in blood.

“I don’t need your help. Unless,” now she turns, capturing John's pale gaze. He stands a little back from the curb, analyzing her through eyes either dark with circles or bruising, she can’t tell. “Unless you can tell me where he is.”

“Not a damn clue,” he retorts. “but I’m sure he can handle himself.”

Yes. Yes he can. It's not him I’m worried about.

“Karen,” Dan pleads, “please. If only so your fiery friend doesn’t have to kick my ass later.”

Fair enough. But she doesn’t actually say that. Doesn’t move.

“Tell me what happened and how you know he's all right,” she demands instead.

“I didn’t say all right,” John retorts. Dan whirls around and smacks his brother across the shin, it being most reachable from his kneeling-at-the-car-door angle. John scoffs it off.

“What? You want the truth, lady? Truth is I got one good bite out of him before he kicked my ass to kingdom come, so I know he's hurting. But that wasn’t no death throw he threw at me, so wherever he goes to lick his wounds, he's probably there, doing that. Like I’m going to be if Danny here ever lets me into the damn house.

Danny pulls his keys from his pocket and throws them in no particular direction over his shoulder. Even stumbling and discombobulated, John manages to snatch them from the air without blinking.

“Thanks.”

Dan shakes his head.

“He's a dick when he's hurting,” he says as John retreats. “But he's not going to lie to you. Or leave anything out. He’s telling the whole truth.”

That last part is a bit pointed. But she doesn’t know why. If its in reference to something, the something is a blur.

“if I go in there, he tells me the whole story. Beginning to end. Everything I want to know. Everything. Or I’m going home.”

Dan wobbles verbally, starting and stopping. She rounds on him.

“Deal, or no deal, Ketch?” she snaps. “swallow your collective pride or give me my god damn car keys. Those are your choices.”

Let me go home and pretend Frank is already there or let me stay here and brace for why he won’t be.

He’s alive,” isn’t mantra enough anymore. Not nearly enough.

Dan sighs.

“Ok. You come in, get cleaned up, and I'll good cop your bad cop and see what Johnny will cough up. Deal?”

She steps out of the car.

“Good enough.”

It’s the answer she wanted—It’s not as if rushing home will help. She can feel it: somewhere in New York a phantom is burning rubber. Frank isn’t there.

 

 

Chapter Text

When Karen emerges from Dan’s shower, having rinsed clean crapes and cuts, pulled twigs from her hair and clothes. A towel wrapped around her head and still unapologetically in her pajamas and a jacket, John Blaze is half asleep on the retro, metal sided kitchen table with an improvised ice and ziplock cold pack smashed against his head. Dan is digging through a fist aid kit and smothering his road-grated leg in Aquaphor. He extends it to Karen as she walks in. She drops into a chair between the two men, and slathers some on her palms. She’d landed hard on them at some point, taken all the skin off. She lets Dan wrap them up for her in silence. He has rougher hands than his profession should allow. Little traces of the rest of the life he’s lived in his too-young, brutalized flesh. The scars on his right palm are intricate and deep.

John slumps to upright while his brother works, catching Karen’s eye when he can.

“We . . . wrong footed it,” he says, “sorry. John Blaze. Karen, was it?”

She nods.

“Blaze. Quentin Carnival Blaze? Looking good for you age.”

He blinks momentarily wide eyes. The bruises beneath them and around them exactly mirror the sockets of his skull, like talking to blue eyed death.

“Told you she knows her stuff,” Dan mutters, turning from Karen’s hands to re-packing the first aid kit.

“I figured you meant her New York stuff. How far back did you go?”

“Remember a Gardenville, Nebraska, 1972?”

He groans and slides the ice pack down over his face.

“I try not to. That’s old, old news. Not a good time. We had some shit to work out.”

“We.”

“Yeah.”

Karen crosses her arms and leans toward him a bit across the table.

“We, in your case meaning you and the demon, right?” John swears. “Demon spirit, I guess?”

He slides the icepack away entirely and glowers at Dan, who shrugs. John kicks him halfheartedly under the table.

“Really?”

Dan shrugs again. “She figured me out in a week. There’s no use lying to her.”

“Not with the company she keeps,” John spits.

I’m right here,” Karen snarls. John throws his hands up with no small amount of sarcasm. Dan takes the opportunity to leave the table and slowly return with three bottles of water.

“Look,” John says, Karen cuts him off.

You look. You’re not squeaky clean yourself and I don’t give a shit what you have to say about Frank or his methods. I just want to know what happened out there. I want to know what kind of shit you started, I wanted to know how it ended, and I want to know who was screaming. You’re in my city beating up on my friend,” John laughs in her face, she ignores him, “I don’t owe you the time of day. But you owe me and everyone else out there wondering what the fuck is going on this time.”

John’s eyes narrow. “Off the record or nothin’.”

“Anonymous source, no details. That’s what’s on the table. I recommend you take it.”

“Or?”

Dan throws a hand out across the table as if to separate them. “Or, I’m not letting you sleep this off on my couch. Just get it over with, yeah?”

The brothers share a look encoded within which is a language Karen doesn’t speak. But John sighs.

“Pretty straightforward. I got a weird feeling a few days ago,” beside her, Dan lets out a sigh that says he knows exactly where the feeling came from. “Poked around the news. Found out there was a world class asshole rider in town. Went to have a word, tell him to cool it. Get control of it or get fucked. Turns out, he’s not a moron out of control, he’s just like that.” He throws a less than appraising look at Karen. “You got weird taste, lady.”

Bite me.

“Keep talking.”

He snorts. This man harbors something in him that could toast her soul out of existence and leave her a husk worse than death. She doesn’t care. Go ahead and fry me, you carnie bastard. Might as well get her burning in hell over with now.

“So,” John continues, “I gave him a talk. He didn’t listen.”

“So you had to beat it into him?” Dan asks, far from amused.

“You know how it goes.”

Dan lays his head down on the table.

“Tell me the details,” Karen demands. Now John looks almost impressed. Like he either can’t believe she’s serious or can’t believe she’s real. Probably thinks she’s a pompous lunatic. With no sense of self preservation. He’d be half right.

“Do you wanna chill at all?” he asks.

“Not really.”

“And I thought I had a stick up my bony ass.

“Ok, I’m not a sportscaster, you’re not getting a play by play. Point is, we beat the tar out of each other. Your friend the ghost punisher can take a beating.” That he can. “And he can give one. But as my loudmouth brother apparently told you, I’m haulin’ around a less than average spirit. Zarathos here,” he taps his temple before bringing the ice pack back up to it instead, “is a sin eater been on a diet. He can’t do shit to a spirit, but the man underneath? Total buffet.”

“Jesus, Johnny,” Dan mutters.

“I was a little desperate from getting my ass handed to me, thanks,” he grumbles back.

“His spirit is home grown, though. Your ‘friend.’ And didn’t appreciate taking a bite out of its host so much. What do you know about the penance stare?”

“Not that it had a name.”

“For lack of anything better to call it . . . blame him,” he jerks his chin toward Dan.

“Hey! Don’t look at me,” he retorts. “That was all Ghostie.”

“Yeah, you only sound like that nerd once in a while.”

In any other circumstance, the rapport would be amusing. Not now. She’s got nothing left in her for laughter now. John sighs at her glower.

“Long story short,” he says, snappish again, “demons don’t feel remorse. Turn out, though,” he shifts in his chair and groans, smashing the ice pack harder against his head. It’s melting already. “Turns out you hold on to a soul if you swallow it. Zarathos doesn’t feel shit from being looked at, but your friend is smarter ‘n he looks. Stared straight into the remnant however many thousand souls this asshole has ingested over the years. For the record? A hundred thousand souls screaming under their own sins inside your head? It sucks.

“Which is how you end up out cold in the woods with your ass solidly handed to you.”

Manufactured indeed.

“So. You hurt Frank’s . . . soul.”

“A little. Maybe he’s out cold, too.”

“What does that mean?”

“I got no idea. I’m guessing. I was passed out. I got no clue where he went. But he left me alone once my skin was back on, which I’m guessing is his definition of a truce.”

“As close as you’ll ever get.”

John snorts. Dan, face back in the table, groans “Ghost riders,” and drops Karen’s keys into her lap.

 

Chapter Text

Ellison finds the story she hands him dubious.

“If anyone but you brought me a supposedly first hand account of a ghost skeleton fight in the woods, I'd say no way. But if anyone would hunt down a skinless enhanced on fire . . . Do I need to put a leash on you? Do you have any limits?”

“Apparently not.”

Ellison sighs.

“Ok. Ok. Give me a shorter version of this, it's . . .”

“A lot?”

“That,” he groans. “But it's damned interesting as far as superdouche fights go.”

Karen snorts up half a laugh. No one is more sick of super crap than Ellison. No one.

“Too bad,” he grumbles, “it's not Halloween season. Then it'd be perfect.”

“Oh, look on the bright side. Maybe now every day is Halloween.”

Ellison just groans.

Karen runs her story.

Karen runs plenty of stories. For seven days she has nowhere else to be. Frank is nowhere. The rider is off chasing prey out on dark roads that run in small local papers as Ichabod Crain tales. Whatever nefariousness occurs in the deep woods and the wilds of the rest of New York state go up in flames that leave no explanation or trace.

Dan calls her on day eight. Shes at the office late, and almost doesn’t answer.

“What is it?” she asks tentatively.

“Good news, I think. My brother's out on the curb having a heated conversation with some asshole on a bike. Not literally heated. So, your friend has skin again.”

A weight and tension snaps across her shoulders, tension releasing so suddenly it feels like a tearing muscle rather than something good.

“Givehimthephone,” she gasps. “Dan,  please--"

“I'm on it. I think some diffusion woukd begood.”

The phone turns to crackling and thumping, blurry motion sounds. Then the crackle of voices through teeth. Dan's lighter Brooklyn bounce cutting in. More shuffling—

And then the only voice she can give a damn for.

Karen--"

Frank. Thank God.”

Something like that. You ok?”

Fine now. Tell me you're on your way home.”

right after I clean up some loose ends.”

She sighs, groans, a bit of both.

“Frank--"

I think we can compromise. Give me some credit. You gonna be there when I get there?”

“You know it.”

Theres so much else to say. None of it belongs on the phone.  That’s all the more they offer beyond parting salutations. So normal. As if she hasn’t been terridied down to her bones for a week of what happens when a so takes damage. About if shed ever see him again. If hed still be him. As if the punisher and the rider and the tragedy of his life were a non issue.

As if ir were just them. That simple.

She hangs up the phone.

*

When Frank opens the door she's waiting for him. Karen explodes forward into his arms before he can even step over the threshold.  They hang there, clinging to each other, half into the apartment, until her arms cramp up around his shoulders.

She lets go first.

That’s the first bad sign.

“tell me youre ok,” she says as he relents, letting her go and closing the door. Staring theough her, he answers:

“am now.”

“and before?”

He fixes her with a long eye to eye plead, maybe to understand him without saying, maybe just to say that he's hurting—

No.

Not hurting. It sends a chill through her to see it: hes terrified.

“I don’t know,” he says. “I have no fucking idea.”

“how? You're always at least a passenger--"

“no. No, not this time.” Stereoscopic movements of his head, his neck strainjng to support a jaw so tightened it yanks sinew toward rhe snapping point, she recognizes, for a brief moment, a frank she hasn’t seen in some time. A frank on the edge. A frank without a tsrget to aim at, and a trigger finger itching to shoot.

She lays a hand on his shoulder. He slides from undernest it, and proceedes to pacing for a moment before finally falling into a chair, foot shaking at the ankle, hand across his mouth as if to hold something back. Or tear his own face off.

“Frank . . . I cant understand this if you wont explain it to me.”

He runs his hand over his entire face, still looking to tear free from reality via his flesh. Or something.  But theres no escape in stripping down to the bone for him, anymore.

Karen comes to sit opposite him.

“You told me the spirit needs you to aim. Itsmade from you. You can pull it back. So what do you mean?”

He looks at her sideways. An animal in a trap--its been so long since shes seen him this undone.

“That bastard knockoff Blaze has,” he says, the words staccato, held together by spite, “tried to take a bite of me. He's a sin eater, and i—im what I am. All you can eat. But my—I don’t knkw how much soul he got, what he teied to tear into but it was like I shut off. I remember thinking ‘you are what you eat, turn it around on him,’” and then I wS out. Uncinscious. Shoukd have been a heap of empty bones in the ground or some shit but . . . I think . . . I know . . . It kept going. While I was out. It was like when I first woke up alive, burried in it, in myself, but I cCouldnt get out. I wasn’t conscious enough. And whrn I did it was . . .”

“a fight?” she whispers, all trepidation.

“not even that. More of a . . . Squeeze. Like it had filled out and there wasn’t much room left for me except cramped up in the passenger seat, couldn’t get a grip on it to pull it back and trade.coukdnt see around it, just saw myself. Dark. Stuck in my head, u dunno.”

“it . . . Took over.”

“took my damn body for a joyride.  What its been doing all week? I had to ask Blaze. I couldn’t remember, fuck, I wSnt there. I was in the black part of being dead before the deal offered itself up. Wasn’t even sleeping, karen. Gone. Spirit was all that was left. For fuck sake, I dEd twice and got to be fuel. That . . . I didn’t sGn up for that. I didn’t know it could smother me. Shit, karen. I don’t ev know what it did.”

“Nothing. Nothinf from the last week.”

“Blaze told me it wasn’t in the city, heard something about somebackwoods outfit he smelled on his way in getting toasted. I don’t remember it. I don’t kOw why it went where it went. I don’t kOw who it hit or how. I don’t know . .  I—I don’t know who was there. Who it hit.”

“wrongdoers, I imagine,” she says softly, its made feom you, it has to have limits, it has to have reasons and pick thise most deserving of vengeance and leave the rest, doesn’t et to fokkow. He shakes his head and cuts offf the words.

“let he who has never sinned cast the first stone. Think that’s john something. Now you tell me who's never done a single thing wrong. You tell me what good person is perfect.”

“Frank, you said yourself that sinners and killers, like me, could have good souls.”

Yeah,” he almost shouts, desperate now, “good. Not fucking, divine, people arent perfect, karen. They fuck up. They piss other people off. It’s a damn vengeance thing, karen. Not just sin. Not just evil. That how we use them but that’s not what it is. Don’t tell me I can trust that to pivk and choose targets. Not without someone to help steer.”

She should say something.

She cant.

“The deal,” frank mutters, eyes cast into space, theough the floor, “was I get to do what I do by becomg this thing. I get to use it and come back. Not it gets to use me. Not it gets to make me—im not a murderer. That is not what I do. That’s nit war.”

Something tughtens in karens stomach. Somethinf crawls up her spine.

“what can you do about that?” don’t say nothinf. Or don’t s somethinf—a piercing fear whispers that could somehow be worse.

Don’t do something stuoid, dont—

“Reneg, or stop playing,” he says. Its too hollow to be a growl. Something horrible and steely comes over his face. How do you renegotiate with Hell?

An answer pops into the back of her mind and freezes there before it can form.

“Will it let you just stop?”

He shrugs.

“Never tried to lock it up, I don’t know. But I can get creative.”

The firmness in his voice is a shodow of what it should be. Resigned. Strong, but resigned. To the fact that his life might always be a fight, his mind a never-quiet sea of shrapnel, his heart a heavy thing that clings to pain tenfold for every moment it beats out joy. The same resignation he held toward the last skull he wore, only with less relish in it. Frank is at home under fire, not in it.

Small wonder that he never stops breaking her heart.

“It doesn’t have to come to that,” she murmers, willing the statement into existence.

“And how would you know that?”

“Because I refuse to believe otherwise without proof. Real  concrete evidence. Show me the body of a truky innocent person that thing went after.i reffuse to believe your stubbornness allowed that.”

“tall order when I don’t kn where ive been.”

Don’t sass me like that, Frank. She snorts, and gets up without a word, striding over to her bag and her work tablet, returnng armed with the latter. She pulls up the folder of articles she's saved just trying to know where he is, be sure he's out there, alive somewhere in the world, and hands him the device.

“Maybe so,” she says, returning to his statement of doubt. “But I think we can handle it.”

*

Ellison doesn’t bat an eye when she says she's leaving town to investigate a ghost rider copycat up in the Catskills. A copycat is new. It isnt one of a hundred superincidents to scroll over, just like the city-muting screams of Zarathos the week before. She can argue that it has merit as a part of an escalating pattern of enhanced behavior begging questions such as where is SHIELD and where are the psychiatric resources in this country to aid mimics and unstable individuals enhanced or not? Why don’t we prevent these escalations? Pulitzer shit like that. The kind of wild goose chase her sets her loose on all the time. So she and Frank have the van packed by the next morning, a trail of his other's destruction to follow, and the hope of finding no civilian casualties to drive them.