It’s not as if she goes looking for trouble. Though, after a while, it does seem like she has ‘AFFILIATED WITH SEVERAL KNOWN VIGILANTES’ stapled to her forehead, complete with glue and glitter like some overzealous second-grade class project.
At least her position at the Bulletin means that she has an actual reason to be poking around suspicious activity now. Her editorials and columns have gained a surprising amount of attention from other news media outlets. She’s getting calls about her information from StarkIndustries and the New Yorker, and even some institutions that she’s 95% sure aren’t actually legal. Every time something even remotely super-hero and vigilante related happens in the state of New York, Karen’s phone rings pretty much continuously.
Ellison makes awful jokes about it, but Karen is actually convinced that he’s going to be hiring her an assistant at any point in the near future.
And then, somehow, Frank Castle winds up in her new apartment.
Okay, no, really, honestly, Karen is actually rather fond of her new place. It’s certainly not a palace or one of those fancy-ass lofts on every sitcom taking place in New York in the last three decades, but it’s got actual rooms. And walls in between those rooms. Multiple rooms. And a roof that doesn’t leak. Plumbing that works. There isn’t any mold on the walls and quite frankly the rent makes her feel like she’s committing highway robbery. When she first moved from Vermont, there had been broom closets more expensive than this.
And so far, she hasn’t been shot at while standing in it. Or knocked out and framed for murder to cover up a multi-million dollar fraud scheme by her previous employer by conveniently having her wake up next to a dead body.
Which is a significant improvement, in her opinion.
But no, yes, the Punisher. In her apartment. Staring at her with an unfazed expression on his face. Even from the doorway, she can see the white skull painted on his chest-piece.
And this is somehow so normal for her, at this stage of her life, that she honestly takes one look at Frank, at the bruises on his face, at all his gear spread around her apartment, and says, “Okay. It’s 11:07. I haven’t eaten yet. I’m going to order some dim sum from the corner and you are not going to get any of that gun oil on my bed.”
He doesn’t reply, and Karen honestly isn’t expecting him to, but she does notice that he moves something off of her bed and sets it on the floor.
She dials and orders. Close enough to her usual order that it probably won’t be seen as unusual, but also enough for two. Maybe she should have asked. Does he even like dim sum? She turns and pulls off her red coat as she waits, hanging it on the hook by the front door even as she can hear the continuing sound of a gun being cleaned.
The Punisher in full gear should really be making her more anxious than she feels, shouldn’t he? Somebody that wasn’t Karen Page would probably be running down the stairwell at the other end of the hallway outside, screaming for help. The last she heard, he was off doing his weekly mercenary thing. Yakuza last week. Italian Mob the week before. Drug Syndicate a month before that.
Then again, this ironically isn’t her first rodeo. This isn’t even her first rodeo with this specific vigilante.
Somehow she can hear her own voice echoing in her head, all those months ago. “But, but, what about when the law fails? Like it did with me, like it did with Frank?”
Which, she doesn’t want to think about. Because she’d been standing in Matt’s apartment, not this one, before everything went to hell and everything changed. Accompanied by the biggest ‘hey, guess what?’ in the whole universe. Whatever had been between her and Matt, it seems like all of Hell’s Kitchen opened up and swallowed her whole. Like an invisible glass window has separated her from everything that had happened during her time at Nelson and Murdock.
She’s splashing her face in the kitchen sink when her alarm pings and she pushes the button to open the downstairs door. A few moments later and about sixty taps of her finger against the doorframe, and there’s a knock.
“Thank you,” she tells the kid. She’s seen him around before, but can’t quite remember his name. She gives him a tenner anyway because it’s all she has in her wallet, unless he wants a dollar and thirty-three cents. “Have a good night.”
Okay, so, maybe, it hadn’t occurred to her that it wasn’t the best idea to have someone bring up food to her door when the Punisher was servicing his literal killing machine on her bed, because when she turns back to him, he’s stepping out of the hallway that leads down to her bathroom and living room.
“Food,” she tells him, waving the plastic container in his general direction. “Even if you don’t eat it now, you should probably take it with you. I can’t imagine that you can get into many diners with the,” she pauses, waving her free hand towards the white skull on his chest. “You know.”
The fact that two months ago the man in her apartment was probably the most wanted man in New York goes unsaid.
“Where’s your .380?” he finally asks, wiping his hands.
“Purse,” Karen says.
He frowns. “You probably should have pulled it on me, instead of dropping your bag and ordering take out. Other murdering nutjobs probably don’t have my manners or house-training.”
His voice echoes strongly from the diner. “Yeah, well,” Karen tries. “Other ‘murdering nutjobs’ would have killed the delivery boy, not hidden in my bathroom.”
It does what Karen hopes it will: it eases the tension in the room. They both know that he doesn’t kill innocents, as he once tried so adamantly to convince her. And, sadly, even after the whole Matt debacle, she can no longer tell what’s more efficient: saving lives, or preventing them from needing to be saved in the first place. Not so long ago everything had seemed black and white, for her. Simple. Good people got good rewards and bad people got bad ones: only the law had failed her and failed so many others and Fisk had risen to power and nearly destroyed the whole city.
Now she can’t even tell light from dark. Just gray. Everything’s gray.
His dim sum goes untouched but Karen is just hungry enough to stand in her kitchenette and shove it into her face straight out of the plastic container with a fork. She chews, thinking about a million different things: the exposé on the S.H.I.E.L.D collapse that she’s in the process of writing, how the gang violence that's recently sprung up near 48th is going to make it difficult for her to get home from work if she starts routinely staying late, sending another bouquet of flowers to Mrs. Ulrich, or about how Frank looks better. Healthier. Like maybe he’s been doing okay the last few months.
“So, uhm,” she eventually says. “You wanna tell me why home base is suddenly my apartment?”
Castle immediately looks uncomfortable, which is odd, in his full Punisher gear. He takes his gun back into his hands and leans back against the wall, and continues to fiddle. “I was in a scrape about two blocks over and Red got involved. I ain’t particularly in the sermon mood, so I booked it.”
It takes half a second to realize who Red is, and then Karen is trying to contain an ironic smile. But she figures that there’s a sort of understood rule about revealing someone’s secret identity for anybody that’s not Captain America or Black Widow, so she swallows it down. “Hiding from the Devil, huh? Pretty sure there are at least 300 folk songs about that.”
“I ain’t hidin’,” Frank tells her.
Somehow, Karen doesn’t believe him. Though they haven’t spoken in weeks, she somehow understands what it feels like to be on the other side of Matt Murdock’s sense of right and wrong. “You look better.”
He really does. Compared to the man that had been strapped down, beat up, and drugged up in that hospital bed, all that time ago, it’s like she’s staring at a completely different person. Granted, there’s a skull on his shirt, but there’s an alertness to his whole body that just wasn’t there the last time she’d seen him.
“I’ve seen worse,” he says, shrugging. “My head’s still banged up. But yeah.”
She shoves another mouthful towards her face, and because she is who she is, very nearly misses. “How’d you even find out where I live, anyway? Did my doorman let you in?”
The expectant look on her face tells Karen that it’s no-go on both counts: but surprisingly it floods her with relief. She won’t have to come up with an excuse for Kenneth as to why he had to let a man with a very big suspicious black bag up to her place. Or have to make excuses for the neighbors. She doesn't think he could pull off being her brother. Cousin, maybe? Ex-boyfriend. But knowing Frank, and Frank’s type, he probably got in through the window. Or the roof.
His face doesn’t change, but he says, “You have a rare talent for getting the wrong sort of attention. It’s cause you’re good,” Frank says. “You take in strays like Red an’ me. It’s weird. In this whole pit of shitheads and killers, and I somehow keep getting caught up with the one last good person in three square miles.”
“I’m not,” Karen tells him.
It takes a moment for him to stop twisting the barrel of his gun, and ironically it’s so big that she can’t tell where the original gun ended and his obvious modifications began. But when he does, his face dark and purple from all the bruising, he raises his left eyebrow. “Pretty sure you’re qualified for the next Sainthood, ma’am.”
The plastic container is empty, but Karen numbly plays with it. Sainthood. Saint Karen, Protector of Vigilantes and Justice and Josie’s Bar.
It must say something about the person she’s become, how much she's changed, because something strange pools low in her belly. Adrenaline, maybe, by the way that her heart is suddenly smashing at some breakable surface inside of her chest. Like something's trying hard to break out. Suddenly she can't stand to be in the same hemisphere as somebody that would actually qualify for Sainthood. She doesn't deserve to breathe the air they breathe.
“Do you remember Wilson Fisk?”
Frank looks up from his gun, evaluates what must be the expression on her face, and nods. “Yeah, we’ve had the pleasure.”
She shouldn’t— this is probably, no, this is a bad plan from any angle she can look at it. But the future bestowal of Sainthood sits heavy on her shoulders and chokes her lungs and feels slimey.
Karen swallows. “I don’t know if you were here when most of that happened,” she pauses. “For a while, Fisk wasn’t out in the open. He had his hands in everything, behind everything, but the face of his operation was his Second. Guy by the name of James Wesley.”
She’s never told anyone. Not Foggy, or Matt, though four months ago it felt like she could. Like they would understand and try to help but Matt has all but disappeared from the public eye, except when he’s wearing the mask, and Foggy is settling into his new gig on the other side of town. Matt would just be disappointed in her. Poor Foggy had enough stress on his plate. No, now, she wouldn’t tell either of them.
But with Frank, it’s somehow different. Like she’s staring into a mirror, or an imperfect reflection that somehow still manages to resonate with something deep inside her that she never plans to let out. And there is a tiny sliver of something in her chest that wants to see what will happen. “A few days before Fisk was arrested, Wesley was shot in a Warehouse off 35th and 10th.”
Frank doesn’t move, but she sees the beginning of recognition and understanding as it flares across his face.
“You shot him.”
Karen’s fingers drag along the back of the armchair Mrs. Hernandez from upstairs had given her when she moved out. Mindless. Remembering the dark warehouse. The table. The chair. Wesley. “Seven times.”
Frank laughs. Harsh. Like in that diner before he killed those two thugs. “I’m sorry?”
Karen repeats herself like she’s not just admitting to a Vigilante that she has also murdered someone. Particularly one with a proclivity for punishing people that have hurt others. “I shot him seven times.”
All of a sudden, before she can really blink, Frank is in front of her where he hadn’t been two seconds before. “Tell me.”
It feels like there’s some sort of dam breaking, and now that she’s started, she can’t seem to stop. She can't tell if she's scared, or petrified, or elated. “I’m not good,” she tells him again. “That .380 was on the table and his phone rang and I grabbed it. He didn’t believe I’d do it. But I did it.”
She won’t break and say that it felt good, like some cheesy soap drama that her father used to watch religiously. That she had methodically pumped Wesley one bullet after another and laughed with it. No, in her head she had just been screaming: stop, stop, stop, stop, stop. No more. No more. No more dark alleyways or street corners, no more holding her keys in between her fingers like claws, no more triple bolting her front door at night. If she had to take one more moment of fear and suffering, she’d drown.
Suddenly she can’t meet his gaze, even though he’s inches from her face. “D-does that make me a bad person?” It takes all Karen has to keep standing there and not wobble, even though her work heels put her slightly off-balance. “Are you going to punish me, too? The last good person within three square miles?”
“Do you want to be punished?”
On another person, that sentence might be sexual. Hell, even with Castle, it could be, and she can’t deny that the way that he slows his breath and lowers his voice sends something shooting down her spine, but there’s also something on his face that sees right into all the things that she’s struggling to hide.
“For a time,” she admits. “I did. I had nightmares. I kept waiting for the other pin to drop and Wilson Fisk would be standing there with the dead bodies of the rest of my friends.”
Was this some sort of penance? Her fight to save Frank from an unjust world and a system that failed more times than it succeeded, was that all it was? She didn’t want him to drown, because that meant that she’d drown, too? Was she all a lie? Was she just like the rest of the filth that he’d killed, or the filth that Daredevil locked away? How thick was the line that separated her from them? How easy was it to cross?
He says nothing. Just stares down into Karen, stares through her like not even Matt had.
It seems like for a while he has nothing to say, except neither does she, because she can’t tell anymore. She can’t tell from good or bad because everything in Hell’s Kitchen has suddenly become so goddamn complicated that she can hardly breathe. She puts her hands against her sides like she could somehow push her ribs back into place and hangs her head. Meanwhile, she knows, deep down, that if Wilson Fisk was standing right in front of her, without a doubt, she’d pull that damn .380 out of her bag and shoot him right in the head.
For Ben. And Mrs. Cardenas.
“You helped me remember,” Frank says quietly, like a confession, pulling her out of her own head. “The whole goddamn fuckin’ world wanted me in a chair and pumped full of poison, except you. At the very least, you wanted to get the truth for me, and my family. If that don’t get your hat into the Sainthood ring, I got no clue what will.”
She breathes out a shaky breath, trying to keep everything together and not falling apart like it wants to. “You figure?”
Okay, so, Karen Page has maybe always found Frank Castle attractive. Maybe because she sat next to him for the entirety of the trainwreck of his trial when Matt Murdock was literally nowhere to be found— er, well, before she knew about the whole Daredevil bit. Maybe because of his stint in the hospital, for the concentrated honesty she could see on his face the whole time, or the confusion, or the hope. Maybe it was standing on the pier, numb, watching as they pulled body after body out of the water and hoping that it wouldn't be him. Maybe it was in the woods, hearing the gunshot in the distance. But it is difficult to find somebody sexually attractive when they are going on a massive murder spree across Hell’s Kitchen because of the brutal slaughter of his late wife and two young children. This is not a conducive environment for her sexual orientation.
But now, he’s got less bruises, he looks better, healthier, more centered in himself and his ethics and morals and his own code, standing in her apartment, about two inches from her own face, voice low and whispering and looking at her as if he can see even the darkest little flicker of light inside her and still considers her to be a good human being.
This, this is going to be a problem. Later. It’s gonna be a problem later.
“And Miss Page?”
“If you think I can’t tell the difference between mob hits and the murder of an innocent old lady and a woman turning a gun on her assailant,” Frank says, stepping closer. “You got a whole ‘nother thing comin’.”
She has to hold her breath, because he is literally about an inch away from her, and he’s so tall that he has to look straight down to meet her gaze. He moves to pick up his stuff, locking it all into place, and Karen wraps her arms around herself. But before he goes, he lingers. For what, she doesn’t know. She watches his face, his eyes, his hands, hoping that he doesn’t suddenly decide that she really is guilty and does deserve to be punished, or that she’s about to do something incredibly stupid and double down on kissing a Vigilante when he instead slides his hand over her left cheek and down to her chin. She leans into the warmth, enjoying it.
He seems to catch himself, drops his hand and clears his throat and adds, “Uhm. Have a good night, Miss Page.”
She smiles. “‘Night, Punisher. Do me a favor and don’t die, it’ll ruin my editorial.” She pauses, for a second, but then, “And take the Dim Sum.”
He grabs the styrofoam container on the way out the window.