Karen fumbled to get her apartment key into the lock while juggling two plastic bags of groceries when the keys were taken from her hand and efficiently slotted into the lock by a hand with bruised knuckles.
She looked up and took a step back even as her door swung open.
It's somewhere around ten at night on a Thursday and Frank Castle stood in front of her and she had the wild thought that he's either there to kill her or help her with her groceries. She hoped it was to help her with her groceries because the plastic handles were cutting off circulation in her fingers.
She wasn't ashamed to admit that when he took the bags from her hand, she breathed a sigh of relief. Both from his apparently peaceful intentions and the sensation that flooded back into her hand.
"I hope you're not expecting a tip," she said as brushed past him moving into her apartment.
"A beer'd be nice," he said before following her inside, and then making sure to close the door and lock it.
"Don't touch the Dos Equis," she said dropping her bag on her counter, her gun within sight in the inside pocket. "But the Bud in the fridge is all yours."
“Thanks,” he said before holding up the bags. “Where do you…?”
She jerked her head towards the counter. “Just put them there.”
He set them down with a gentleness she wasn’t expecting and it pissed her off. She worried her lip for a moment as she stared at him, then with a brisk shake of her head, she started to put her groceries away.
“Going to tell me why you were in my hallway?” she asked as she shoved some microwave meals into her freezer. “And don’t you dare say you were in the neighborhood.”
“I, uh,” he said rubbing the back of his head and not quite looking at her. “You wrote something the other week about the lack of free clinics in the area. Something to do with the larger HMOs cutting out the little guy by jacking up rates so they go to better areas?”
Karen paused mid-shove and stared at him. “You read my articles?”
He shrugged. “They pass the time until I make it to the funnies. Anyway, I was, ah, visiting some guys and they were talking about doing some work for some assholes to get that clinic over by the school closed down for good. Something about messing up the place. Figured you’d know who to warn. Make sure they watch out.”
“I do,” she said closing the freezer drawer and looking him over. “I’ve got a friend who’s a nurse; she can get the word out.” She blinked and rubbed her forehead. “Why tell me, though? Couldn’t you have told someone?”
“Yeah, right,” he said snorting. “You think anyone’s going to take information coming from me seriously?” He shook his head. “I don’t have an alter ego that can have a polite conversation with a god-fearing member of the public.”
She can’t help it and she barks out a laugh, covering her mouth afterwards. To distract herself, she pulls out some more groceries, but makes sure to hand him a Bud from the fridge first.
“I figured I, ah, could let you know when I hear something that needs looking into,” he continued. “You interested?”
“Let me get this straight,” she said. “You want to be a source? Is that what you’re offering?”
“Yeah. You interested?” His voice was steady and genuine, but her anger still simmered just beneath her skin and it was only the fact that he still wasn’t exactly meeting her gaze that held her anger in check.
“Yeah,” she said after a long moment. “I’m interested. But, I’m sure you could find a way to let people know when shit’s about to hit the fan.”
“Nah,” he said shaking his head and scraping at the label on the bottle with his thumbnail. “I know my limitations. I’m a blunt instrument. Just point me in the right direction and I pull the trigger. I don’t do public service announcements.”
Karen can hardly argue with that rather true statement and silently puts away her beer, pulling one out for herself.
“So, you’re not with the lawyers anymore?” he asked.
“No,” she said popping the top off of her beer. “The firm’s not exactly a firm anymore and I…needed to do something else.”
She quickly takes a drink and the carbonation burns in her throat, but she keeps swallowing. She set the bottle down with a thunk on the counter and she could feel him watching her.
“Right,” he said slowly. “You know who he is, don’t you?”
“Do I know who ‘who’ is?” she said on a sigh as she shoved a bargain bag of granola into her cupboard and then turned to grab the milk.
She froze, her hand on her carton of milk, the condensation slippery under her palm. She closed her eyes and tilted her head to the side.
“You know,” she said flatly. “How?”
“Figured it out,” he said.
“Then you’re a brighter spark than I am,” she said hauling the milk carton out of the bag, where it promptly slipped from her hands. She geared up to curse the inevitable splash of milk everywhere but a hand was suddenly there, just under the carton, stopping it from hitting the ground.
She looked up at Frank who was right there and he stared steadily back at her.
“Thanks,” she said in a small voice.
“You’re welcome,” he said as the corner of his mouth curved up, just a little bit and Karen remembered how this was always there in every conversation; that hint of humor, that promise of a potential good time and a decent laugh.
Well, it was there in most of their conversations.
It hadn’t been there in their last one.
“He told me,” she said taking the milk from him with both hands (and no, the irony wasn’t lost on her). “We haven’t exactly talked since.”
“And you’re gonna just - what? Walk away?” he asked. “Damn it, don’t do that.”
“You know, you were right,” she said turning to him, her fridge open at her back. “The ones you love that can tear you apart? They’re worth it. The ones that rip you open and stomp on your heart? They’re worth the love you give them. They’re worth the time, the sacrifice, the blood, the sweat.” She shook her head. “But the ones that do it when there’s a serious imbalance of power? They aren’t. It’s got to go both ways. Because if it doesn’t? That just leads to bullshit and pain and I’m not giving anyone that kind of power over me again.”
He was silent as he looked at her and the heat of his stare combined with the cool of the fridge at her back made her shiver.
“Why’d you get the .380?” he asked after awhile.
“I got it to protect myself after I shot and killed a man,” she said before she could stop herself. Oh, so that was what it was going to take to make him finally look her in the eyes. She stared back at him before she asked, “You going to punish me now, Frank?”
He shook his head and chuckled. “No, ma’am. I know the difference between doing what you gotta do and what you like to do. I ain’t gonna come for you.” He cocked his head to the side. “Murdock know?”
“No one knows,” she said finally closing the fridge. “No one except you. And the guy I killed, I guess.”
He doesn’t say anything to that and Karen squeezes the handle on the fridge so tight her knuckles whiten. “Why are you here, Frank? The offer to be my source only goes so far.”
“Some guys were following you home,” he said shuffling a bit. “They tailed you from your office to the shop to here but then they moved on. Looked preppie, if you can believe it.”
“I can,” she said turning to face him. “There’s a fraternity that doing bad shit to girls in the neighborhood and I’m calling them out on it.”
That corner of his mouth curved up again. “Still fighting the good fight?”
“More like bobbing and weaving my way through the hours.”
That got his attention. “You know boxing?”
“Once upon a time,” she said. “I took some classes once before things got too busy. Had an uncle that loved it.”
“Show me some moves some time,” he said, that curve becoming a full out grin.
Karen laughed. “I wouldn’t last two seconds in a round with you.”
“Don’t sell yourself short,” he said. “I’d put money on at least five seconds.”
And there it was again - that hint of familiarity and fun; that sweet hint of what if they’d met under different circumstances? Would they be able to smile when they saw each other, instead of wondering who was going to end up hurt. But it passed when the sound of a siren a few streets over echoed outside. Frank's head turned a fraction and he stilled. Karen studied his profile, taking in the fullness of his mouth and the dark circles under his eyes that seemed permanently charcoaled into his skin.
The siren faded and he turned back to her.
"Why are you here, Frank?" she asked again.
"Why were you watching my office in the first place?"
He let out a gusty breath. "Because you're not."
"I'm not what?"
"Dead." His eyes pinned her in place. "You're not dead. Not to me. I can be dead to you, that's fine. That's...that's all right, I'm good with that. But you...you aren't dead to me."
Karen closed her eyes and bowed her head, letting his words wash over her and she tried to sort out her emotions. When she realized the prevailing emotion was something like relief, she laughed quietly. "God. I'm going to invite you to stay for dinner, aren't I?"
"Don't know," he said. "Are you?"
There was a knock at the door that had him tensing and reaching for his gun, but Karen put her hand on his wrist, the only sliver of skin exposed. His head jerked to her and she shook her head.
"It's dinner," she said. "It's okay."
"Check first," he said.
She nodded and squeezed his wrist before grabbing some cash from her wallet and going to the door. She looked through the peephole and asked, "Who is it?"
"Bodie from Light of Asia."
She saw Frank slip into her kitchen out of the corner of her eye as she opened the door to take her food and give Bodie a tip.
As she closed the door and turned the deadbolt, Frank came back out with a new Bud in hand.
"How come he gets a tip?" he asked pointing the bottle at her.
"Because you got a beer," she said. "And I think being a delivery guy in this neighborhood deserves a couple of extra bucks, don't you?"
He snorted and shook his head, upending the bottle into his mouth where he drank down half the contents.
"You like Thai?" she asked.
“Sure,” she muttered taking the bag to the spot on the floor in front of her small sofa and sat down, her back to the sofa, her legs stretched out in front of her. She kicked off her shoes and said, “Grab my beer and some forks.”
He does as he’s asked and then joined her, settling in next to her, his long legs stretched out like hers. For several minutes, they don’t talk, they just eat and drink their beers and if she closed her eyes, Karen could possibly imagine that the man sitting next to her hasn’t murdered people. But hell, if she’s playing pretend, maybe she could imagine that she also hasn’t murdered anyone and…
She stabbed her fork into what remained of her pad thai and set the carton down. Frank slowly looked up at her.
“I’m so angry,” she said, leaning her head back and closing her eyes. “I’m so god damn angry, Frank.”
“Yeah,” he said mimicking her pose and settling beside her. “I get that.”
“I write and I research and I do it over and over and over and it never goes away,” she said. “It’s never going to go away, is it?”
He huffed out a laugh. “Honey, you’re asking the wrong guy. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t angry. It’ll be with you until you burn up from it. And if you’re lucky, you can take some bastards out with you when you go.”
She frowned. “I don’t want to believe you.”
She rolled her eyes and turned to look at him. “So helpful.”
“Hey,” he said as he turned to face her. “Told I don’t do public service announcements. But, you’ll probably be better off if you don’t believe me.” He leaned towards her. “Don’t be like me, Karen. Don’t you dare.”
“What do you care?” she whispered.
He didn’t answer her, just continued to stare at her and to her surprise, she found herself leaning towards him. She leaned closer and closer and closer until her forehead touched his. He exhaled as she inhaled and he turned his head slightly. His nose brushed against hers and where his forehead pressed against hers sent licks of warmth all through her.
She closed her eyes when his hand came up to cradle the side of her face. Rough fingers smoothed over her cheek and his thumb tugged at the corner of her mouth. He let out a breath that shuddered and she opened her eyes.
His lips were parted and his eyes were heavy lidded as they gazed at her. She felt the weight of his stare as he looked at her eyes, her lips, her hair, her neck, and finally landed back on her eyes.
Later, she’ll admit to herself that she was the one who nodded and lifted her chin so that their lips met.
But in that moment, all she thought about what how good it felt to be kissed long and deep and slow.
His lips moved over hers, heavy and warm, and she parted her own without hesitation. His tongue was a delicious weight in her mouth that she couldn’t stop stroking with her tongue and her hands curled into his shirt, just above his steadily beating heart.
It felt so incredibly good to be kissed and held that for a moment, she let herself forget everything.
The realization that she could quite easily fall into a kind of oblivion made her pull back with a soft whimper of regret. Frank grunted and lifted his head to press his lips to her forehead, his hand now cupping the back of her head.
“Bad idea, hunh?” he murmured into her skin.
“Yeah,” she breathed. “Very bad idea.”
His hand slowly slipped off her head and she sat up straight, swiping under her eyes with the tips of her fingers. He smirked a little and she chuckled.
“I’m gonna…” He jerked a thumb towards the door.
She nodded. “Be careful.” She winced and rolled her eyes as he chuckled. “Oh, shut up.”
They got to their feet, careful not to touch one another. Karen stayed where she was and watched him unbolt the door. Just before he opened it, he turned to look at her.
“Be seeing you, Miss Page,” he said, that infernal corner of his mouth curving up once again.
She smiled a little. “Yeah.”
And then he was gone. She waited five heartbeats before going over to throw the deadbolt on her door and pulling the door chain into place. Giving in to wishful thinking, she pressed her ear to the door and smiled when she heard footsteps finally walking away from her door.
For the first time in weeks, she slept through the night.