Frank wakes up tied to a chair. Tied to a god damn chair, why is it all his worst memories start that way? His coordination is, it’s… It’s shit, right now. He can barely feel his body to try and escape, is so dizzy he doesn’t even want to. Whatever they slipped him, he’s about halfway closer to out of his gourd than he usually is. Too strung out to focus on any one thing, even the pain in his temple or the itch of blood drying on his face.
Takes him a couple minutes to remember where he is, what he was doing.
Kids. Missing kids, yeah. Eleven, twelve years old. Almost a dozen in the last three weeks. And Frank had been… He’d been lying low. Like Madani and the rest of her Homeland crew had suggested – Pete Castiglione, not Frank Castle. Going to Curtis’s support group meetings. Trip out to a state park with the Liebermans. Shit like that. Even came to check on Karen, when he found out after he got back in the city that Wilson Fisk had had the god damn run of it while he was gone.
Found out Red was back, too.
And things were… How they were. Except then Mrs. Li, who’d taken in Max and let Frank stop by to visit him, she said her granddaughter’d gone missing. Told him about her daughter Annie using up her vacation days trying to find Mei. That was about all Frank needed to get out the tac vest again, dust off a gun and go hunting the dark places of the city.
Give Frank Castle something small and helpless and in need of protection and all the walls come down. That ain’t softness, though. Soft ain’t like that. Soft is what Red does. Half-measures and guilt and hesitating a second too long. Soft is letting all the god damn walls down in all the wrong places, for anyone and everyone. It’s gonna get Red killed someday, sure as shit, even if a god damn building couldn’t finish the job.
Not that— Not that, you know, that Frank has any room to talk because this? This might be it for him. And it shouldn’t matter. It should not matter, because he made that choice, going out again with a gun in his hand and a skull on his chest. But he can’t shake the feeling that he’s not done yet. After surviving so long, he’s finally starting to live again and he’s not ready to give it up.
But even if he has to, at least the kids are out. At least he got ‘em out, every single one. It was just going back that screwed him over. Trying to finish the job, make sure whoever thought it was a good idea to steal kids off the street and sell ‘em didn’t have a chance to think anything ever again. The rest… The rest is a blur. Frank doesn’t know how many of them he took down before they got him, doesn’t know why they drugged him and tied him up instead of just putting a bullet in his brain. Doesn’t know shit except that he’s tied to a chair with zip ties and he can’t stop his trigger finger tapping against the arm rest.
A door opens on the far side of the room, stirring Frank from his thoughts. But the person who steps inside isn’t one of the traffickers. Too slender, and wearing some kind of… Shit, he knows this one…
A peacoat. Yeah. Maria’d mooned over a blue one in a catalogue for ages one year, til Frank had got it for her birthday. The look on her face when she opened it…
“Yeah,” he murmurs.
Like sunshine. Frank grins to himself, shaking his head.
“Oh shit… What’d they do to you?”
The figure across the room had moved right up to him while he’d been distracted, but Frank’s too drugged up to even flinch. Plus… His head hurts like hell, but he knows that face.
“… Karen,” he gets out, and she offers him a watery smile in return.
“Hey,” she says with a crack in her voice, all quiet like she— like she’s gotta be gentle with him; handle with care. “Hey Frank.”
Her face is red, blotchy. Always seems to get like that when she’s emotional, like she’s gonna cry, but he’s never seen her do it yet and she doesn’t now. Just gives him one last smile and pulls out a pair of nail clippers to cut the zip ties.
There’s a word for her, Frank thinks woozily. Can’t think of it, but he knows there is. Not brittle, but close to it, you know – pretty and fragile and sharp-edged and unwavering. He knows there’s a word that means all that shit together, the contradictory mix of things that make up Karen Page. But he’s never been much good with words. Fumbled them like a fucking kid in front of Maria all those years ago and never got better at it.
“There’s a word for you,” he mumbles when Karen eases one of his arms over her slim shoulder and hauls him to his feet.
Holding him up like his girl did when he came home. Always someone holding him up.
“There’s a lot of words for me,” Karen says right back.
And she doesn’t get it. She doesn’t get it, he knows she doesn’t. But his head’s a mess, more than usual, and it’s all he can do to put one foot in front of the other as she walks him to the door.
It’s good Karen knows where she’s going, because Frank doesn’t have a clue. Even if he did, he keeps getting caught up in thinking about the kids. Their faces. How one of them had her hair done up like Lisa used to. Always comes back to that. Maria and the babies. And, shit, yeah, Frank knows hell and grief and war and— He knows all that. But the loss of his family still hollows him out, bleeds him dry the way no gaping wound’s been able to.
You can’t sew grief closed with a needle and thread.
It’s only the sound of someone incoming that shakes him out of it. Digs deep under the haze to the part of Frank that fights wars. Even like this, he can take stock of the situation. One corridor. No cover. No rooms to duck into.
One gun, Karen’s .380 shoved in her purse like an afterthought.
But she’s got one hand holding his arm across her shoulders and one hand fisted in his belt loop to try and keep his legs from dropping out from under him. So there’s no extra hand to hold a weapon. No alcove to hide in. Just the steady thump of booted footsteps moving closer. But Frank? He’s got one hand free. The right one. He fumbles the gun out of her purse and unlocks the safety just as one of the traffickers rounds the corner. Frank lifts the gun. Drugged as hell and can’t aim for shit, but he still knows this. Knows it in his bones, ‘cause that gun? Yeah, it’s as much a part of him as his own hand. So he shoots. With Karen holding him up, he shoots. Bang. And he doesn’t miss. Guy drops like a rock.
They keep shuffling on, Karen and him, and Frank shoots three more guys before Karen lets out an angry little huff.
“You can’t just keep shooting them, Frank,” she scolds him.
“Sure I can. Til you run outta bullets.”
“No, that’s not— I mean we need at least one of them alive so we can figure out what they drugged you with.”
Frank mulls that over, nods and almost knocks them both ass over teakettle doing it, he’s so damn uncoordinated.
“That’s…” He blinks hard as they right themselves. “That’s pretty smart, Karen.”
“Yup,” she answers with a sigh, lugging him another step down the hallway.
“Sorry,” Frank apologizes, and means it even if he’s not sure why he’s saying it aloud. “Must be heavy.”
“I work out,” retorts Karen like it’s scripted.
The apology earns him a breathless little laugh from her, though.
“Got a nice laugh,” Frank says, again without meaning to.
It’s true, she does, but. But that’s not the sorta thing Frank says, usually keeps that kinda observation locked down. Whatever they gave him, it’s got him chatty in a way he normally isn’t, and it feels wrong under his skin. Makes him want to claw it out of himself, but even drugged up he knows that’s a bullshit plan.
Next time they hear footsteps, there is a door to hide behind. Karen stuns the guy by smashing the door in his face, and Frank can’t help the proud grin on his face. Then he’s gotta lean hard on the wall, since Karen’s busy tying the guy up with whatever shit’s on hand in the room. And she seems to have it covered, you know, so he just… Watches. Tries to steady himself.
“What did you give him?” growls Karen at her captive – low, threatening.
The guy spits at her.
“Hey,” Frank says, sharp and angry, lifting the barrel of the gun. “That’s no way to talk to a lady, you piece of shit. Tell her what she wants to know.”
A nasty sorta smile comes over the asshole’s face.
“Why don’t you tell me something instead? Tell me what you did with the kids, Punisher,” he sneers, and Frank—
Answers him. He doesn’t want to, knows he shouldn’t, but the words just come out. He tells the guy exactly where he sent them – to Mrs. Li’s place. Tells him the address down to the zip code. Frank’s lungs shudder in his chest, he wheezes—
But doesn’t fire. Not yet. Not outta panic. No. He’s got control of his trigger finger, still, even if he doesn’t have control of anything else.
“Frank,” Karen says, catching him when he stumbles – she’s back under his arm, she’s taken more of his weight, and she shouldn’t have to, she—
“You shouldn’t have to, Karen,” Frank says. “You shouldn’t have to.”
He comes back to himself. And then he shoots. Because he told the guy where the kids went, and he’s not putting Mrs. Li in danger. Fuck knowing more about the shit they injected him with – whatever it is, it’s messing with his filter. Some sci-fi truth serum shit. That’s enough for now.
“Get me outta here,” he tells Karen. “I don’t give a shit about whatever they did to me, you get me out of here now.”
Karen nods, sharp and determined, keeps hauling them forward.
Light’s so bright outside, after the dim halls of the building, that Frank has to squeeze his eyes shut. Karen grips his arm tighter.
“Are you ok, Frank?”
“Nah,” he huffs out. “Not sure I’m built for being ok.”
Which is true, but it’s also damn depressing and not the sorta thing he wants to tell Karen, not when she already carries so much shit of her own. Doesn’t stop her, though. Doesn’t stop her one bit. She just keeps hauling him along.
“You’re not going to pass out on me though, are you?” she asks instead, reframes the question.
“Nah. Don’t… You don’t gotta worry about that, Karen. I can keep going.”
“Good. We need to be gone before I can call the police.”
They stumble their way along, back alleys and side streets, until Karen leans him up against a brick wall and pulls out her phone. She rattles off the address of the place, quick and sharp and businesslike, and slides her phone back in her coat pocket when she’s done.
And then Karen takes two steps closer and wrestles the tac vest off him.
“Jesus. We can’t let you be seen in that thing, your Pete alias wouldn’t survive it,” she says gruffly.
“Yeah,” agrees Frank, watching her fold up the vest like it’s just some other piece of clothing. “Yeah, that’s… You’re right.”
Madani had sent him off with the understanding that he’d stop. Because, really, his war was done. Rawlins was dead, Billy was cut up, locked up. It was over. It is over. But him picking up a gun again, if it gets out, it’ll torch everything he’s built as Pete. And he can’t— he cannot lose this. What he has now.
“I can’t,” Frank says aloud, voice cracking in the middle. “I can’t lose this, Karen.”
“You won’t,” she tells him, hard and certain like it’s fact with his bloodied vest in her hands.
And he… Yeah, shit, he believes her.
“Don’t thank me, Frank. Just tell me where we need to go.”
He rattles off Mrs. Li’s address, still leaning too much on Karen. She gets them a cab somehow, even though he must look high as shit and he’s covered in blood. Karen’s a miracle worker like that. Frank tells her so, and she laughs again – little hysterical, but mostly amused. That’s good.
He’s got no idea what Mrs. Li sees when she opens the door for them. But she smiles anyway, and Frank might be drugged out of his god damn mind but he still remembers what being polite means, so he thanks her when she lets them inside. Karen leads him over to the couch and they drop onto it together. Soon as they do, Max runs up with his whole body wagging. Frank gives him a good scratch, smiles when Karen pets the pit bull and croons nonsense at him.
“’s just us?” he finds himself asking Mrs. Li after a minute, since the place isn’t full of kids.
“Annie is checking Mei over in the washroom,” answers Mrs. Li over her shoulder as she heads into the kitchen. “I sent the others off with Bess’s boy – he’s a police officer and a very reliable young man, he will make sure they all get home safely.”
There’s a sound of running water, and then Mrs. Li’s back with a wet cloth. She uses it to wipe the blood off Frank’s face like he’s a damn kid.
“Feels nice,” he mumbles, can’t meet her eyes when he says it.
“Good,” answers Mrs. Li firmly. “You did a very good thing today, Pete.”
He was just doing what had to be done. But before he can say that, a door down the hall clicks open and out walks Mei and Annie. Frank recognizes her from the pictures on Mrs. Li’s wall, but she looks a hell of a lot more haggard than in the photos. Not that he can blame her for that. Shit, if someone had taken Frankie and Lisa—
His guts twist. Karen squeezes his arm a little, like she knows what he’s thinking of.
Mei makes to step into the room, but her mom holds her back with a hand around the wrist. If Annie’s face was pale before, it’s gone bone white. Mei tugs her arm, frustrated.
“What, Mama? That’s him. That’s the guy I told you about.”
Annie, not letting go of her kid, storms over to Mrs. Li, giving the couch a wide berth.
“What did you do, Ma?” she demands.
“Do? Annie, I have no idea what you mean.” The response is clipped, disapproving. “But you are being very rude to Pete and his friend.”
Annie scrubs her free hand over her face in the kind of loving frustration that gives Frank a pang of longing for Maria.
“Ma. That is the Punisher. That is the Punisher with a beard.”
“This is Pete,” Mrs. Li insists. “He used to own Max.”
Frank’s pretty sure she knows her girl’s right though. He huffs out an amused exhale, too dizzy for laughter, and presses his cheek against the back of the couch. Max snuffles at his hands again, whines. So Frank gives him a little scratch behind the ears as Mrs. Li and her daughter devolve into an argument in clipped Mandarin.
“No idea what they’re saying, Max,” he mumbles when the pit bull turns his big head towards them, tilted a little to the right. “Shouldn’t’ve taken French in high school I guess.”
“Oh Jesus,” says Karen, and that’s when he remembers she’s sitting there next to him.
“Forgot you were there,” he admits, even though it’s rude as hell and he really shouldn’t. “Shit. Sorry.”
God damn truth serum bullshit.
“It’s fine,” Karen replies, and maybe it is because she sounds like she’s trying not to laugh.
“He is dangerous!” Annie finishes firmly, and the return to English is jarring.
“He is injured, Annie. And you are a nurse.”
Mrs. Li looks patient and insistent, but it’s Mei who does the convincing.
“It’s ok, Mama,” she soothes, squeezing Annie’s hand. “He’s not going to hurt us. He saved me, why would he go to all that trouble just to attack us now? Can’t you help him?”
Annie makes one last frustrated face before her resistance falls away. She stomps a little as she approaches, but she doesn’t hesitate to get in close – professional, unafraid. She checks his pulse, his eyes, prods around the cut on his head a little.
“The traffickers injected him with something. It’s… I don’t know, messed with his balance, lowered his inhibitions I think. Is that something you’ve seen before?” Karen asks.
“It’s some truth serum bullshit,” Frank grumbles because he still can’t seem to stop himself.
“Yeah,” Annie says, still looking him over. “I’ve seen people come in dosed with this recently. I couldn’t tell you exactly how much is in his system without taking him in for testing, but it doesn’t look like they OD’d him, so it should wear off in two or three hours.”
“Hell of a long time,” Frank says, because three hours of this?
He’s gonna go completely batshit if he says everything that even crosses his mind.
“Well, that’s just how it is.” Annie turns to look at Karen. “You’re free to take him… Home,” she finishes awkwardly, pulling back.
“Don’t mention it. Please,” mutters Annie, hurrying back over to her kid. “Not all of us want to be Claire Temple.”
Whoever that is. Karen’s got a hand at Frank’s elbow, about to haul him up, when there’s a knock at the door. Mrs. Li goes to get it, and almost immediately Frank recognizes the voice – not like he could ever forget it after the string of bullshit it’d rattled off in his defense.
Nelson. How he knows Mrs. Li, Frank has no god damn clue. Nah, what’s more important in the moment is, his voice is getting closer; Mrs. Li is leading him into the living room.
“—found Mei?” he’s saying as he rounds the corner. “I came over as soon as I h—ooooooly shi—” Nelson catches sight of Mei just in time. “—p. Holy… Ship. Yeah. That’s.”
Mei sighs and presses a hand to her forehead. She looks about done with everything.
“I know the word shit, Mr. Nelson,” she says.
“Shhh,” retorts Nelson, “no you don’t, Mei-Mei.”
Now his attention’s on Mei, Nelson loosens up. But he’s gonna have to face facts eventually, mainly the fact that Frank’s in the room. Frank grins.
And, yeah, there’s the tension again.
“Foggy, I can explain,” Karen says, holding up her hands like she’s trying to calm a wild animal.
Which is damn funny considering that rather than any kinda wild beast, Nelson’s more like a—
“Fluffy bunny,” Frank snorts under his breath, ruffling Max’s ears.
Nelson doesn’t seem to hear him, which is good.
“Karen? What are— What, what is going on here?”
“Don’t freak out,” Karen orders firmly, and the strained look on Nelson’s face is god damn hilarious.
“Freak out?” he says, all high-pitched and nervous. “No of course not, of course I’m not going to freak out, why would I freak out about the fact that a mass murderer who obliterated the first iteration of my law firm and is also supposed to be dead is sitting next to you on Mrs. Li’s couch like a slightly demented Doberman, obviously there’s no call to freak out about that, Karen!”
The words ‘first iteration’ stick in Frank’s brain like tar.
“Heard you and Red are back in business,” he says idly. “He still making you do all the work while he backflips off rooftops and shit?”
All the color drains right outta Nelson’s face.
“How do you know that, how does he know that, Karen?”
“I didn’t tell him, I swear!” Karen promises.
Frank snorts, rolls his eyes.
“Didn’t have to. He can lower his voice all he wants, no one else spews that much sanctimonious bullshit.”
Even if he’s glad Red didn’t turn up dead after all, the guy’s a pain in the ass and that’s the truth. Wouldn’t need to inject Frank with a truth serum to get that outta him. Still, Red and Nelson protected Karen. Protected him too, even if the court case was a god damn farce.
“I’m not hearing this!” Annie cuts in loudly, covering her ears. “I am not hearing this. Come on, Mei, out.”
“Mr. Murdock can backflip?” Mei asks skeptically.
“Go with your mama,” replies Mrs. Li, ushering her granddaughter out of the room after Annie.
She follows after them both. Then it’s just Frank, Karen, Nelson, and Max. Nelson gives Frank the staredown, but it’s not exactly intimidating coming from him.
“Foggy,” Karen says, breaking the silence. “Please.”
“Please what, Karen? What— what is the reaction you think I should be having to all this?”
“He saved Mei’s life today. He saved a lot of kids today.”
Nelson might be a god damn bunny rabbit, but he’s also relentless. Squares his shoulders, doesn’t back down.
“And how many people did he kill to do it?” he asks Karen.
She looks away, doesn’t answer. But Frank will. He’s not afraid of Nelson, and he’s sure as hell not sorry about what he’s done. He got those kids home safe, and he made the men who took them pay.
“Least four,” he tells Nelson without a blink. “Probably closer to eight. What are you gonna do about it, counselor? Call the cops? Rat on me to Red?”
“Gonna kill me if I do?” Nelson retorts. “That’s how you handle all your problems, right?”
Not a bunny, then, Frank thinks, grinning. Nah, more like a cat. Little kitten with too-sharp claws that ain’t afraid to use them on something bigger than itself. The words are on the tip of Frank’s tongue when Karen stands up abruptly.
“We’re going,” she tells Nelson.
He rubs his temples, takes a deep breath. Frank doesn’t envy him the ulcers he must have, dealing with recklessness from Red and Karen both.
“Well, we can’t keep cluttering up Mrs. Li’s place,” insists Karen calmly. “I’m taking Frank home so he can rest.” She helps Frank to his feet and makes to shove past Nelson to get to the front door. “Excuse us.”
“We are going to have a talk about all this, Miss Page,” warns Nelson with an accusatory finger point. “So many talks.”
Karen rolls her eyes and waves him off. Frank gives Max one last pat on the head before they go.
They take another taxi to Frank’s apartment. He pays the cab fare this time – still a couple bills in his pockets to do that much. They walk up together, but Frank’s steady enough now not to need to lean on Karen for support. He unlocks the door, lets them both in and bolts it behind them out of habit.
His place is decent. Nothing like the shitholes he hid out in with a police scanner and an arsenal. Pete Castiglione makes good money in construction, now that he doesn’t have to be paid off the books. Karen studies it all and he lets her, stuffing his hands in his pockets.
She still hasn’t taken off the peacoat. And that makes him think about her finding him, walking into that place alone with a handgun and some nail clippers, knowing exactly what she’d find.
“How’d you know where to find me?” he asks.
“I might not be a reporter anymore, but I still have a finger on the pulse of this neighborhood.”
It’s not an answer, but Frank lets it go.
“Guess that’s two I owe you,” he says.
It’s obvious, he thinks, but Karen looks confused.
“Still need to make up for Fisk and that piece of shit dressed up as Red.”
Karen shakes her head, frowns.
“No. That’s not… What?” she demands. “You don’t need to feel guilty about that, or make up for it, or…”
“I promised I’d protect you, Karen. Promised I’d keep you safe and I wasn’t there. I wasn’t there when Fisk sent that asshole to kill you. That— that’s on me. Ok? That’s on me.”
“That is bullshit and you know it, Frank,” Karen says, sharp and forceful.
“No I don’t,” he argues, shaking. “No I do not. You could have died, Karen, you could have—”
“But I didn’t! I’m alive right now, Frank, I’m ok.”
“But you’re not!” she interrupts, and the red is back in her face again, around her eyes. “The kids were all out. They were all safe, Frank, why did you go back? Do you have a death wish or something?”
Frank figures she probably means to sound angry about it – mostly, she sounds dead tired.
“No,” he tells her. “No, I don’t. It’s… I haven’t. For a while.”
There’s more, churning in Frank’s gut, climbing his throat like vomit. He grits his teeth to try and hold it back, but all he gets is Karen looking worried.
“My old lady, she…”
The truth shudders out of Frank, pulled from his mouth against his will. Sliding past his teeth like smoke. Like god damn smoke. He doesn’t lie much, doesn’t care to, but he doesn’t always say everything either and this is… Shit, it’s wrenching and painful and he can’t stop. If Annie’s right, it’ll be another two hours before it stops.
“I saw her,” he stammers. “When it was all over, when— After I put Rawlins down, I saw her and she asked me to go with her. To come home. To just… You know, to give in, to rest, be with her and the babies again, but I… But I told her I was home. I told her, I said “I am home” like that was it, and I— I wanted to live, I want to live, Karen. I still got shit to do, still got people to protect – you and Curtis and the Liebermans. Hell, even Madani. But I still can’t— I told her no. I said no, and it’s like I’m leaving them again but I chose it this time, you know? I chose it.”
Karen’s face goes hard, then, steely.
“You deserve to live, Frank,” she tells him, grabbing him close, carding her fingers through the hair at the nape of his neck. “And I don’t know what you saw, but if she loved you then Maria would be happy you’re alive. That you have people you care about, who care about you. Wouldn’t you feel the same way if it was her and Frankie and Lisa?”
“Yeah,” Frank chokes out, wraps his arms around Karen and tries to breathe. “Yeah, course I would. Of course I would. I love them.”
“I know it’s hard. I, I do. Really.” There’s something wavering in Karen’s voice – pain, a memory. “And maybe it’s… Maybe it’ll always feel like it’s your fault. But you know they loved you, that they wanted what was best for you. It’s ok to live, to try and be happy. No, even— It’s more than ok, it’s what you need to do. And you have people who want to help you, Frank. Me and David and Sarah and Curtis… Mrs. Li too, it seems like.”
Frank nods, swallows past the lump in his throat. Leans forward to let his forehead rest against hers.
“I know,” he says. “I do, I know.”
They stay like that, holding each other up, for a long time. Frank closes his eyes. And it’s like he can feel it, all the little splinters of himself getting pressed back into place. There’s some missing – shit, there’s always gonna be some missing, he knows that – but for the moment he can breathe and that’s enough.